How Fear Killed Andy Lopez

I’m so angry I don’t know whether to cry or scream. Why is Andy Lopez dead? One look at him reminds me how he could be my son, or yours. He could be any kid in America — and he should be alive. Andy Lopez is a victim of our own exaggerated media-driven fears to which even grown men and women in uniform have succumbed.

Lopez was a popular kid who deserves to be out playing with his friends today, doing what he seemed to love best — pretending. Pretending! Weren’t we all once great pretenders? Isn’t that what we get to do when we’re 13-year-old boys?

The happy-go-lucky kid and his friends liked to play with pellet guns. It’s a toy that looks like the real thing, but a toy nonetheless. Andy was careful to heed his father’s advice and not play near the street, so he stayed instead mostly in his house and in his own backyard when firing the plastic gun with friends.

However, a week ago, as he was walking along the sidewalk of his mostly middle class neighborhood, a sheriff’s deputy cruiser pulled up behind him. Lopez was carrying his friend’s pellet gun, which he was going to return to him. By all indications, he was carrying the gun in a non-threatening manner.

As he walked down the sidewalk in Santa Rosa, California, deputies say they called out to him twice to “drop the gun,” but Andy did not respond. It appears he either didn’t hear or understand them, because when he finally did turn toward them — police pumped seven bullets into his small frame.

Amazingly, the entire incident took less than 10 seconds, according to the timeline now released by local police. It also shows that six seconds after that, deputies were calling for medical help for the boy with the plastic gun. He was probably already dead, but the officer who shot him, a 24-year veteran, said he believed Lopez was carrying an AK-47.

As small groups of protestors gather to criticize the deputy’s actions, the FBI has decided to investigate the shooting. I hope they ask: What was it about that moment that made the officers assume incorrectly that the boy with the toy gun posed an absolute and immediate danger? Was it the way he looked? Was it the way he turned or has it really more to do with the times we live in?

It is difficult – if not impossible – for us to imagine that 20 or 30 years ago, police would have responded as the deputies in Santa Rosa did last week. Could you imagine officers becoming afraid of us as kids playing with cap guns, no matter how real our weapons may have appeared? They wouldn’t have been afraid. You know why? Because when we were growing up, police generally didn’t fear us.

So what has changed?

Here’s what I’ve learned in talking to police, retired and in active duty, regarding this story. What police feared last week, no matter how ominous the plastic AK-47 may have appeared, wasn’t the weapon. No, what they really feared was Lopez himself.

They didn’t really fear the gun, they feared the boy.

You know why? Because of the visual imprint left in their head, and ours, by the infamous young shooters from the massacres in Columbine, Colorado, and more recently in Newtown, Connecticut. Though isolated incidents, to many if not most of us, these “crazed child killers” have become the new normal.

That’s what the officers who shot little Andy Lopez likely saw — not a boy with a toy gun, but rather another dangerously armed potential “crazed child killer.”

It’s a sign of the times that’s enough to make us all want to cry and scream.

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