The deadly combination of racism, gun culture and poorly trained cops

Almost every day now, I see an outpouring of rage, grief and fear from my friends. That is because almost every day now, another young black man in America is shot to death by another white police officer. Many of these young black men are innocent yet executed on the spot for no reason. Others may be guilty of something, but we'll never be quite sure since they didn't get a trial. They were punished by spontaneous public execution instead of through a court of law. 

Why are so many young black men being killed by police officers in America? It is, unfortunately, a lethal combination of at least three elements. These elements are each dangerous and destructive on their own, but when combined create a situation where no young black male is safe in the United States.


A lot of countries have a racism problem, not just the United States. Police officers in other countries also use racial profiling, are more likely to stop or arrest a non-white person than a white person, and are known for police brutality. It could be argued that racism is different in the United States than it is in other countries, because of America's history of slavery, but racism certainly isn't just an American problem.

Police in countries like Germany, Canada and the United Kingdom have racism problems too.

More than 3,000 (UK) police officers are being investigated for alleged assault – with black and Asian people significantly more likely than white people to complain of police brutality, according to an Independent investigation. - Paul Gallagher, The Independent
Toronto residents learned that their police force had suspended its use of “carding,” the controversial practice of stopping and documenting people not suspected of any crime. The policy disproportionately targeted black people, who make up just over 8 percent of Toronto’s population but accounted for 27 percent of those carded in 2013. - Desmond Cole, The Walrus
The UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination had, once again, condemned Germany's record on dealing with institutional racism - particularly when it came to racial profiling by its police force. - Deutsche Welle

Racism is a problem that white people around the world need to address. We need to stop assuming that we and our friends are not racist. Instead we need to understand that everyone passes judgment and makes assumptions based on biases that we may or may not be aware of. Being able to recognize our own biases and call out our friends and family on their biases is a first step.

Police officers also need to be able to recognize their own biases and police forces need to actively address racism and racial bias in the force. Desmond Cole, an activist who has been carded more than 50 times by Toronto Police, told the National Post:

Every police officer in Canada should engage in ongoing anti-racism and anti-oppression training, and toss out the current euphemistic regime of ‘bias-free’ training,” he said in an email. “Police should have to take courses about the history and present reality of systemic racism in Canada, particularly towards indigenous and black individuals.

But racism alone doesn't lead to black men being shot to death by white police officers. Outside the United States, racism leads to unjust and discriminatory treatment of non-whites by police, but it doesn't nearly as often lead to their death.

Poorly Trained Police

Police are supposed serve and protect.  Unfortunately, instead of being taught how to diffuse a situation and keep the peace, police in the United States are taught to shoot first and ask questions later (if at all).

Police recruits in Germany receive at least 130 weeks of training, while in the United States training is an average of 19 weeks. That means that German police officers have more than six times as much training as American police officers before they start their job.

But it isn't only the amount of training that differs, it is also the nature of the training. Over their three years of training, German police recruits spend a lot of time on role playing. Over and over again, they learn how to use proven tactics (not guns) to diffuse a difficult situation. German police recruits do learn to shoot a gun too, but their firearms course is specifically called "Don't shoot". They are learning how to use a gun, how to handle a gun, and how to avoid using a gun.

The Christian Science Monitor wrote about one example of the role play that is part of a German police officer's three year training:

The officer, alert but cautious, pounds on the suspect’s door. “Polizei!” he says forcefully, in his native German. A man thrusts open the door and walks out. His hands are at his side, but the policeman notices a gun tucked into the man’s belt. He pulls out his own firearm in response. He then moves briskly backward, coaxing the man to place his weapon on the ground.
The cop is commended for his actions.
The next officer up bangs on the same door. “Polizei!,” he says. This time the person walks out carrying a baton, not a gun. So the cop doesn’t pull out his pistol. He brandishes instead a can of pepper spray – a reflex response that also garners praise afterward.

Not only does any shooting of a police weapon in Germany (at a person or even an object) almost always result in preliminary proceedings being started by the prosecutor's office, but even taking a police gun out of its holster results in a ton of paperwork for the officer. Not only are they trained not to need their firearm in most cases, but they understand there are serious consequences and questions when you do take it out or use it.

In the United States, police training most heavily focuses on firearms skills, self-defense and health and fitness. It is all about the police officers protecting themselves, rather than about handling the situation effectively.  In the training, officer safety is emphasized and every encounter is viewed as a treat. An article in the Atlantic describes a component of the training:

Officers aren’t just told about the risks they face. They are shown painfully vivid, heart-wrenching dash-cam footage of officers being beaten, disarmed, or gunned down after a moment of inattention or hesitation. They are told that the primary culprit isn’t the felon on the video, it is the officer’s lack of vigilance. And as they listen to the fallen officer’s last, desperate radio calls for help, every cop in the room is thinking exactly the same thing: “I won’t ever let that happen to me.” That’s the point of the training.

A common phrase, characteristic of this type of training apparently, is "Better to be judged by twelve than carried by six."

But how often does it even come down to being judged by twelve? Not that often.

Gun Culture

The United States has more guns per capita than any other country in the world. There are more guns than people in the United States, at a rate of 113 guns per 100 residents.

The United States also has far more homicides by firearm per capita than any other developing country. In the United States in 2012, there were 29.7 homicides by firearm per million people. Switzerland, which is the second highest country, had 7.7 homicides by firearm per million people. Most developing countries hover around one to five homicides by firearm per million.

White people are twice as likely to own a gun in the United States than non-whites and it is also white people who primarily fight against gun control. White people love their guns, but black people are disproportionately the victims of gun violence.

With guns being so pervasive in the United States, it is no wonder that poorly trained, scared, police officers assume people are always reaching for their guns. I'm not saying that this excuses any of the shootings, but I do think it is a contributing factor that is exacerbated by insufficient training on how to handle a situation where a gun may be present.

A deadly combination

Racism, gun culture and a poorly trained police force all contribute to the high rate of fatal shootings of young black men in the United States. The Guardian has compiled statistics and stories of people shot by police officers in the United States. In 2015, 1146 people were killed by police officers in the United States. That is a horrifically high number and everyone should be outraged that the police are killing so many people.

On a per capita basis, black Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be killed by a police officer as white Americans.  As well,  25% of the black people killed were unarmed, compared with 17% of white people

Explicitly or implicitly racist police officers with poor training in a country full of guns are going to pull their guns and shoot first. They haven't learned to confront their biases. They haven't learned how to diffuse a situation. They are scared of being shot first. They don't face consequences for pulling their weapon.

The "good cops" are being set up for failure. The "bad cops" are being enabled. This is unacceptable.

These words won't change anything

This morning as I thought about how deadly this combination is, I also remembered having posted about it before. Not in this length, not in this space, but this isn't something that just came to me now. I'm also not the only person who has recognized how these problems, individually or together, contribute to a horrific number of deaths of black Americans.  People have written about this before. People with much bigger readership than I have and people with much more influence than I have.

We've increasingly become a "thoughts and prayers" and "shock and horror" society. We express our grief and we express our outrage.  But the next day, nothing changes. The next day, it happens all over again.

The lack of action and solutions, even when the answers are apparent, is appalling and devastating.



In defense of aliases and anonymity

In the early 1990s, I had just finished high school and was working at a summer camp where I met Jeff. After a day at camp, both back at our parents' homes, Jeff and I would talk on the phone. One night he asked me whether I had a modem. I wasn't entirely sure what that was, but next to the family computer was some device with a bunch of lights that my dad sometimes used to send data for work. It turns out it was a nice, shiny, 1200 baud modem that became my ticket to the online world.

Jeff walked me through the steps of dialing into his BBS, creating an account, and jumping into the discussions. "What do you want your handle to be?", he asked me. No one used their real names on a BBS. I needed a handle, an alias.

That was my introduction to the Montreal BBS scene of the 1990s.  A BBS was a dial-up online bulletin board system where you could participate in group chats, personal chats, play games, and more. Kind of like facebook, but with fewer images, no ads and less invasion of your personal privacy.

I started hanging out on Jeff's board and then joined a few other friends' boards and then some friends of friends' boards. I even joined one of the coolest BBSes in Montreal, one run with an iron fist by one of the foremost geek girls in Montreal. She was an amazing moderator and was quick to ban anyone who caused trouble. I never met her IRL and I never knew her real name, but everyone in the BBS scene respected her. Her alias stood for a lot more than her last name ever could.

Names didn't matter then and, to a great extent, names don't matter now.

Introduction by Google

Would you walk into a job interview for an engineering job and introduce yourself this way?

"My name is Jane. It is nice to meet you. I've written over 100 articles on breastfeeding a toddler, my dancing hamster video went viral and I'm really into BDSM."

Would you walk into your first parent-teacher interview with your child's teacher and say this?

"I'm Dexter's mom. I'm a recovering drug addict, I was quoted in Today's Parent about how horrible my child's last teacher was, and by the way I boycott the company that sells that water you're drinking."

What about your kids? Do you think they introduce themselves to new friends by saying this?

"My name is Mark. I was still wetting my bed when I was twelve, my mom ate her placenta, and here check out this album of pictures of me in the bath."

No. In real life, we keep people on a need to know basis.

There usually isn't anything wrong with anything in our past, but there is just a time and place to bring things up. We don't blurt out every detail of our lives the moment we meet someone.

We filter.

We share the relevant information.

"My name is Jane. It is nice to meet you. I have 10 years of experience working in electrical engineering in both an academic and applied setting. I'd love to tell you about the project I just finished and how the experience I gained there could benefit your team."

Ah, that's better.

Putting your name out there

"I feel like, if I can't say it with my name beside it, I shouldn't say it."

My friend Maureen Turner Rasmussen said this in the context of a facebook conversation about using pseudonyms online. She isn't the only one who feels this way. I've heard many people say this over the years and websites like facebook stipulate that people must use the same name they use in real life.

If you're a normal mainstream person, with normal mainstream children, and your online life is either boring or closely tied to your work, perhaps that works. But if you're weird, or you're an activist, or you're struggling with something and need support, then sometimes you can't or don't want to use your own name online.

Let's look at some examples that illustrate why:

  • People struggling with mental health issues may want to write about it online or seek out support without telling their employer, their neighbours and every acquaintance about it.
  • Feminist bloggers and reporters are constantly threatened with rape or with hurting their family members, including their children.
  • Activists may feel it is important to speak out about an issue, but they worry it could affect their job, a family member's job, or their future career prospects. The decision to be "out" on the Internet as an activist, isn't just the activist's choice. It is a choice that needs to be made as a family because it can impact them all.
  • Teachers, coaches, politicians, political staffers, police officers and other people who are in positions of public trust can have things they say or do online taken out of context very easily and used against them. Most teachers and police officers I know are on facebook with a real sounding fake name so that they can't be found. They have a right to privacy too and a right to not be stalked by the public that they serve.
  • People may have a temporary situation that they can't tell others about yet, like an early pregnancy, job hunting in other cities, or preparing to ask a spouse for a divorce and may need to ask questions and seek out support discreetly.
  • Parents may need support in handling challenging situations with their children (or other family members), but don't want to disrespect their child's right to privacy (in that moment or in terms of the tracks it will leave behind that could follow that child forever). I'm a member of a couple of facebook parenting groups that have thousands of members. I can't possibly know who is lurking in there and I would feel very exposed asking any type of support question in there under my real name.

As a bonus, you never know these days when something will go viral. I've met a number of people who became accidentally and suddenly famous for something they never intended to have define them.

In the age of the Internet, people who have a vast online presence are much more exposed than others. We all Google people before we meet them for a date, a meeting, or a job interview.  It isn't just adults who do this. Children Google their teachers, their friends' parents, their neighbours, their coaches and more. I've learned things Googling people that they probably shouldn't have put out there and that they probably wish I didn't know.

Some people are an open book. The Internet knows a lot about them and they're okay with that (for now). Other people keep their online presence very limited and carefully curated. But what happens when you fall somewhere in between? What happens if you want to be active online, but still want to protect your privacy and choose who knows what about you? You use an alias, of course.  But these days instead of aliases being the norm, they're considered weird and inauthentic.

Protection from the anonymous

People who are against online anonymity have reasons for wanting people to always use their real name. They feel like anonymity allows hateful trolls to say things they wouldn't say with their name attached to it. They feel like dangerous predators hide behind fake names and fake identities in order to take advantage of people. They worry there are people who are pretending to be something they are not. 

I wish that a real names policy actually resolved those fears, but it doesn't.

Unless every website out there is going to require government issued photo ID to open an account (not likely to happen anytime soon), then people can be whoever they want to be online. People create fake personas all the time. Some of them do so maliciously and some do so just to protect their privacy. In fact, I'm sure there are people you know and trust who you think are using their real names when they are actually using a real-sounding pseudonym. Or they have their open, transparent and "authentic" profile, and then the private one where they say things they couldn't possibly say publicly.  And finally there are even people who create fake personas in real life while using their real name (See Rachel Dolzeal or Franck Gervais). 

Requiring real names on the Internet does nothing to protect us from malicious behaviour. It just gives us a false sense of trust.

Creating trust in an alias

How does knowing the name on someone's birth certificate or driver's licence (or thinking that you do) make them any more credible than someone whose real name you do not know? 

From the early days of Montreal BBSes to the message boards of the 2000s to the blogs and social media platforms of today, I've developed trust relationships with people whose real names I do not know. Their opinions are not less valid because I don't know their last name. Their friendship isn't less important because I haven't sat in their living room and met their husband or wife.  When I do sometimes learn someone's real name, that doesn't suddenly change things in a monumental way. I come to trust people online in the same way that I come to trust people in real life -- by observing the way that they act and interact and by listening to what they have to say, not by checking their ID.

What I do online is a sideline. It isn't what pays the bills. It can be fun and meaningful, but it isn't ever worth risking my career or my family's safety or privacy.  I'll tell people my real name on a need-to-know basis, but I've never felt the need to have it plastered across my blog in order to be more authentic.

Some people may come to a point where they feel their alias is no longer needed and they're ready to share their identity with the world. My friends Elan and Dresden each did that. But deciding the opposite is impossible.

Once someone threatens to rape you, once someone chooses not to interview you for a job, once someone threatens or mocks your child, once a creepy person shows up at your workplace or calls your home, once your spouse gets fired from their job, once your employer gets criticized. Once any of these things happens because of something you said online, you can't take your identity back. 

The Internet is forever.

Social media and gaming companies: Stop making kids lie about their age

As I write, I'm listening to an episode of CBC The Current on the dangers that anonymous apps pose to children and teens. While Kik (the app they are discussing) hasn't come up in our home yet, the discussion is related to a lot of conversations that we do have in our home.

My kids are technologically savvy and they have parents who are very connected on all kinds of social media. My kids are eight and eleven years old.

Can I have an instagram account, mom?

No. My answer is no. At the moment, instagram, facebook, YouTube, twitter, Pinterest and just about every other social network out there have age restrictions. So do a lot of gaming sites and apps, even ones that are obviously appropriate for and targeted at a tween aged crowd.  "You must be at least 13 years old to use the Service," says Instagram.  "You will not use Facebook if you are under 13," says Facebook. Youtube goes a bit further (and wordier):

You affirm that you are either more than 18 years of age, or an emancipated minor, or possess legal parental or guardian consent, and are fully able and competent to enter into the terms, conditions, obligations, affirmations, representations, and warranties set forth in these Terms of Service, and to abide by and comply with these Terms of Service. In any case, you affirm that you are over the age of 13, as the Service is not intended for children under 13. If you are under 13 years of age, then please do not use the Service. There are lots of other great web sites for you. Talk to your parents about what sites are appropriate for you.

Wait -- YouTube is not for children under 13? Exactly who are those Kinder Surprise Egg unboxing videos targeted at then? What about the Kids CBC, Disney Junior, and other corporate accounts targeted at kids?

So why the age 13 restriction? Why don't these social media sites trust parents to make decisions about what is okay for their children? There is a very simple answer to that question. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) in the United States says:

If you run a website designed for kids or have a website geared to a general audience but collect information from someone you know is under 13, you must comply with COPPA’s requirements.

But complying with COPPA's requirements is complicated, so it is easier to just say that the site is not for people under age 13. Interestingly, the intent of COPPA is to "give parents control over what information websites can collect from their kids." Instead of giving parents choice, it is forcing parents to either:

  • Prohibit their children from using any website that collects information; or,
  • Allow their children to lie about their age.

Neither of these is a good option to me. For the most part, I've said no. Not because I think my kids aren't old enough to use these sites, but because I don't like giving them permission to lie about their age. I also don't like giving those sites permission to treat my child like an adult, to collect any information from them, and also show them any content that they would show an adult.

Of course Pinterest is the same as the others: "Any use or access by anyone under the age of 13 is prohibited." But for that one, I quietly set up an account for my eight year old without explicitly telling her that I was lying about her age. She uses it to pin pictures of cute baby animals, to save hairstyles that she likes, and to collect Halloween costume ideas. She's also started using it for school projects, setting up private boards with her friends where they can share their research and collaborate on their projects.

Mom! It says I'm not old enough to get an account. What do I do?

This is my eleven year old, after downloading a game onto his computer that he asked permission to download, that I researched to determine its appropriateness, and that all of his friends play. 


Fine, use my e-mail address and birth date.

I don't like this. I don't like having an arbitrary American law determine what my kids can and cannot do online. I don't like giving my kids permission to lie.

This isn't an issue that is just confined to my home or other families' homes. I've heard of elementary schools using a closed facebook group for the kids at their school to communicate with kids at a partner school in another province or country. None of those kids has reached age 13 and the school knows it, yet the school is encouraging this.

My plea to social media and gaming sites: Create child accounts

Do you know what I would love? I would love to be able to log in to facebook and set up child accounts for my kids. It would be an account that they can use, on their own devices, but that I retain some control over until they reach a certain age (perhaps that magical age 13 in COPPA). Give me, as the parent, control over things like privacy permissions. Give me, as the parent, the option to view things like personal messages. Give me, as the parent, the choice to not have my children exposed to ads.

Yes, I know that facebook's business model is based on ads and selling personal information.  But a child who is under age 13 now will soon be a child that is over age 13. If facebook creates a safe space for them when they are younger, then they'll age into being an already connected, regular user of facebook when they do reach age 13.

Not only does this create a loyal user group for these social media and gaming sites going forward, but it also gives parents an opportunity to teach their children responsible use of social media at an age when they are still responsive to guidance from their parents. I know that I have a lot more influence over an eight year old, than I will over a 13 year old. The eight year old is still happy to have me sit with her as she picks out her profile picture for Pinterest. The eight year old still tells me when strangers follow her or try to talk to her. We can have the conversations now about Internet safety. Teaching our kids social media safety is like teaching them street safety. You don't go from having them strapped into a stroller to suddenly letting them loose on the street.

The dangers of COPPA

COPPA is intended to empower parents and protect kids. Instead, it has encouraged websites to wash their hands of any responsibility by putting a line in their terms of service that says it may not be used by people under age 13. This is not protecting children. It is forcing them to lie, to hide things from their parents, or to use apps that have significantly fewer safety provisions than the major social media sites do.

What will it take to get legislators and social network owners to be more creative and responsible about the way that they handle the growing youth audience?