Officials in Columbus, Ohio, appealed for calm, patience, and investigative help on Thursday, hours after a white police officer fatally shot a 13-year-old African-American boy who had apparently brandished a firearm that was later determined to be a BB gun.
Speaking at a news conference, the mayor, the police chief, and other officials offered few details about what led to the death Wednesday night of the teenager, Tyree King. They cautioned that the investigation, which will be presented to a grand jury, will not be quick. So far, they said, they do not know of any video recording of the incident.
“Any loss of life is tragic, but the loss of a young person is particularly difficult,” Mayor Andrew J. Ginther said. “Investigations take time, and I ask for everyone’s patience during this difficult time.”
According to police, officers responded to a report of an armed robbery in the Olde Towne East neighborhood in central Columbus and saw three males who matched the suspects’ descriptions. Two fled and officers chased them into an alley, where Tyree pulled what appeared to be a gun from his waistband, police said, and an officer shot him multiple times.
The officer was identified as Bryan Mason, a nine-year veteran.
King’s death is one in a long string of deaths of black people at the hands of police in recent years that have drawn national attention, particularly when video is made public. They have prompted sharp debates about race and policing, intense criticism of the police, and, in some cases, civil unrest. One of the most scrutinized cases, and one of the most similar to the one in Columbus, also took place in Ohio: the 2014 death of Tamir Rice, 12, who was playing with a pellet gun in a Cleveland park.
Columbus officials made it clear that they were acutely aware of that history, saying it was too early to make parallels to other cases, and insisting that they were striving for openness and community outreach that critics have said were lacking in other cities. They also repeatedly stressed King’s conduct, the credible threats officers face and the gun culture.
“Why is it that a 13-year-old would have nearly an exact replica of a police firearm on him in our neighborhoods?” Ginther asked. “An eighth-grader involved in very, very dangerous conduct in one of our neighborhoods.”
The mayor cited “easy access to guns, whether they are firearms or replicas,” as a serious problem, adding, “A 13-year-old is dead in the city of Columbus because of our obsession with guns.”
Kimberley Jacobs, the police chief, repeatedly referred to Tyree King as a “young man,” and said: “This is the last thing that a police officer wants to do in their career. Unfortunately, because of the things that are happening out on the streets, it becomes necessary at times to defend themselves.”
She held up a photo of a BB gun of the kind found in the alley near King, to show how similar-looking it is to the sidearm used by the Columbus police, a Smith & Wesson Military & Police semiautomatic pistol.
“It turns out not to be a firearm, in the sense that it fires real bullets, but as you can see, it looks like a firearm that can kill you,” she said.
The shooting quickly drew widespread attention on social media, as people took sides to find fault with either the police or the boy.
Jacobs said police were looking for video from security cameras or bystanders’ phones, and were interviewing witnesses, including one of the people who was with King. She said it was not clear whether that person would be charged with a crime.
“There were witnesses, we believe, to the armed robbery and there were people in the vicinity of the shooting, but we don’t know what they were able to discern,” she said.
The Columbus police do not wear body cameras, but they will starting next year, said the mayor, who supports their use.