Shanice Stewart and her son, Brandon, were on their way to his football practice when Sacramento, California, police pulled them over along the side of a highway. What she thought would be a routine traffic stop turned into a terrifying ordeal: Her 8-year-old was misidentified as a juvenile suspect.
Stewart said she did all she could to cooperate with the four officers who had their guns drawn. At 9 months pregnant, the Sacramento mom said she carefully followed the officers’ directions with the goal of getting her and her son out of the incident alive last month.
“You don’t know what to expect, especially when it’s multiple officers with their guns drawn towards the car. You just, you don’t know. But I was definitely in fear of getting shot, me or my son. Just by one of them feeling like they were in danger or they did not feel comfortable,” Stewart told ABC News.
Stewart isn’t the first Black parent to fear for her child’s life — and she won’t be the last.
Within the past six months, at least three other Black boys, ages 11 to 13, were terrorized by the police. In August, a video of police handcuffing a 12-year-old boy in Lansing, Michigan, while taking out the trash went viral. In July, British police in London rammed a Black 13-year-old boy‘s bike and surrounded him with their guns drawn after mistaking his water pistol for a gun — reminiscent of the 2014 killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer.
The London and Lansing police departments may have issued an apology following those encounters, but Black boys are facing an epidemic of adultification bias. The term defines how Black children are viewed and treated as older than they really are.
In May, an 11-year-old Mississippi boy was shot in the chest by an Indianola officer after his mother told him to call 911 when the father of one of his siblings appeared at their house. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigations is still investigating the shooting and the officer was suspended without pay.
Black children carry an unreasonable burden — whether consciously or unconsciously — on how to make themselves appear less threatening to non-Black people and to avoid an encounter with the police, Brittany Fox-Williams, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at CUNY’s Lehman College, told Capital B.
In the case of Stewart, there was nothing she could have done to prepare for an incident like this. As she exited the vehicle, she said one of the officers called her over.
“Please don’t! Don’t leave! Please!” were the high-pitched pleas of panic coming from Brandon as Stewart left him behind in the car to walk toward the Sacramento police officers as a helicopter hovered above. Another driver in the opposite direction of the highway captured 22 seconds of the encounter on his cellphone.
As Stewart inched further away from Brandon, it appears the officers holstered their weapons, one of the videos shows. Stewart said one of the officers told her Brandon was falsely identified as a suspected drug dealer involved in a home invasion and wanted on two felony warrants, including one for gun possession.
Brandon stands 3 feet 10 inches tall. He was wearing his football team’s jersey and protective gear when, police said, they spotted, “from a distance,” who they thought was a suspect. A description of the suspect provided by the police was vague at best: a juvenile.
Although one of the officers apologized on the scene, Stewart said the long-term psychological damage has been done. She told NBC News that he has developed a fear of driving on the freeway and becomes anxious when near police.
“For an apology to mean something it has to be backed up by action. … I would hope that those apologies were followed up with some larger departmental policy around how we can make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Fox-Williams said.
But it’s not that simple, and Black parents bear the unfair weight of explaining to their kids how society — and police — will perceive them.
Sons get ‘the talk’ before daughters
“Black boys are seen as older and less innocent and that they prompt a less essential conception of childhood than do their White same-age peers,” according to research conducted and co-authored by Center for Policing Equity co-founder and CEO Phillip Atiba Solomon.
Sean Eldridge, the director of law enforcement initiatives for the Center for Policing Equity, said he was raised by his grandfather, who sat him down one day in their Kentucky home for two important conversations: how to carry himself around white people, and how to survive an encounter with the police — better known as “the talk.”
“And those are the conversations that I don’t think most of our white counterparts understand that we have to have with our children,” Eldridge said.
Black kids, especially boys, under 18 found themselves on a daily basis making “minding-the-body decisions,” said Fox-Williams, citing her research, “The Rules of (Dis)engagement: Black Youth and Their Strategies for Navigating Police Contact.”
Some of those decisions include adjusting their tone of voice in public and double-checking how they were dressed to make sure they weren’t calling too much attention to themselves, Fox-Williams said.
Eldridge said he knew at some point he would have to have the discussions with his children. And he knew they would happen sooner with his son, who is three years younger than his daughter.
“The moment he could start going outside by himself, I had the conversation with him just because he could be walking through the neighborhood or riding his bike. I was scared to death,” Eldridge recalled. “No matter how unfair it is, all of us parents, people in the community, whoever the adult is in a child’s life, have to have these conversations.”
Eldridge said even though he was once a federal officer, his son pauses at the sight of a police car because of the frequent fatal encounters he’s seen on TV and YouTube or experiences he may have heard from his friends.
“My son is 12, but they think he’s 16. There’s this fear of Black boys … and they see us as a threat and not that this is just a kid. Whereas they would look at a white kid, and be like, ‘Oh that’s just childhood pranks,’ they don’t give us that same grace,” Eldridge said.
The Sacramento Police Department publicly apologized for their part in what they called “a case of mistaken identity” but that’s not enough, experts said. The traffic stop was considered “a high-risk” because police said they thought they saw a juvenile suspect enter a vehicle with tinted windows.
Eldridge said that apologies from police departments are subpar and aren’t enough to build or rebuild trust in the community. Along with departmental changes as Fox-Williams suggested, there needs to be local, state, and federal legislative action that creates laws and zero-tolerance policies to hold law enforcement accountable, as well as mandatory implicit bias, cultural competency, and sensitivity training courses.
A 2019 survey conducted by the Council on Criminal Justice found that nearly 70% of 150 large police departments offer at least one version of implicit bias training — there are over 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the U.S.
Fox-Williams said there hasn’t been any case studies or literature that shows an individual police officer shed any of their implicit biases after taking the training.
“Race, racism, and racialization are organizing features in our society. I don’t think they’re going anywhere,” Fox-Williams said. “Our nation was founded on a racial hierarchy. And I think race and racism play a large part in this and how Black people are perceived by police officers.”
Until there is research to prove those training courses can eliminate racism and implicit biases from society, then there’s no measurable or tangible way for Black parents like Stewart to really prepare their children for an encounter with police or anyone that views them as a threat.
As Stewart contemplates filing a civil lawsuit, she is demanding that all the officers’ body camera footage be released for everyone to hear and see their “nonsense and careless act.”
“You guys wasted tax dollars using a chopper and multiple officers to close the freeway down for me and my 8-year-old son,” she continued in her Facebook post. “I’m unsure what to do but I was scared for my baby.”