The Washington Post’s ‘Toy Weapons’ vs. Cops

The Washington Post’s ‘Toy Weapons’ vs. Cops
A man walks past The Washington Post in Washington on Aug. 5, 2013. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Eric Felten

On Monday, April 19, Edgar Luis Tirado went on a one-man crime spree—important details of which are not recorded in the Washington Post’s often cited “Fatal Force” database of killings by police.

Other accounts, though, were clear about the threat Tirado presented. The 28-year-old Texan, who suffered from bipolar disorder, started small, stealing from a Fiesta Mart in Far North Dallas early in the afternoon. When store workers tried to stop him, he produced a black revolver, pointed it at them, and then ran.

The next police heard of Tirado, it was nearly 4 P.M. He was in a school parking lot, wielding the handgun in an attempted carjacking. When police caught up with him half an hour later, he reached for the gun, which he had in the back of his pants, and leveled it at officers. The police held their fire, and Tirado fled.

Half an hour later, the man robbed a CVS drugstore, threatening the store manager with his pistol. When the police next caught up with Tirado, he ran across multiple lanes of traffic, dodging cars and leaping over concrete barriers before turning and again aiming his revolver at police. This time, officers shot and killed him.

But the Post’s “Fatal Force” tally notes Tirado’s death simply: He was “a 28-year-old Hispanic man with a toy weapon.”

One might be forgiven for thinking, from that description—“a toy weapon”—that Tirado had an orange plastic water gun or some other obvious plaything. But Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia explained at a press conference that Tirado had in hand a “replica handgun,” a fake “that looked exactly like a revolver.” It wasn’t just police who thought Tirado had a real revolver; the grocery and drug store employees who found themselves on the business end of Tirado’s fake gun believed it to be the real deal.

So why does the Post’s seminal database for researchers on police violence, begun in 2015, call it a “toy weapon” when even the short wire report it carried on the killing notes it was a “replica handgun”?

RealClearInvestigations reached out to the Post’s “Fatal Force” team for comment or explanation, but got no response.

“Using the word ‘toy’ is a bit deceiving,” says Patrick Burke, the executive director of the Washington DC Police Foundation. “These are made to look like lethal weapons, and often an officer doesn’t have the time to distinguish whether it is real or fake.”

The paper didn’t always fail to distinguish between fake guns and toy guns. When it was two years into the Fatal Force project, which won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 2016, the Post reported that 86 people in its tally had been killed by police while brandishing weapons that “looked real” but weren’t. Many had been carrying BB guns, others had pellet guns or replica weapons. The Post labeled only two as carrying “toy” guns.

Typical from that early period is the entry for Dana Bruce Ott, “a 63-year-old white man with a toy weapon,” who was shot in 2015 by Colorado Springs police. In that entry, the Post noted that Ott was killed when he “aimed what turned out to be an air rifle at officers and approached them.” The phrase “what turned out to be” makes it clear that in the moment of confrontation, the weapon looked like a real gun.

But today the reader will likely look in vain for such clarifying qualifications from the Post. Since the beginning of 2020, its “Fatal Force” database has described 34 of those shot by police as wielding “toy” weapons, differing from the outside local reports referenced as sources, which make clear that all but three of those weapons were realistic-looking fake guns, including replicas, BB guns, and pellet guns. The three outliers were also not toys per se, but other objects that looked like guns.

“Most if not all of these items are not toys,” said Alan Kaufman, a senior vice president at the Toy Association. Instead, they are “non-powder guns” such as BB, pellet, airsoft, and paint guns. “These items very often look much like powder guns, often intentionally,” Kaufman says. He emphasizes “these items are definitely not toys.”

The distinction would likely be readily evident to shoppers perusing—whose founder, Jeff Bezos, owns the Washington Post. It sells toy guns as well as many replica pellet and BB guns, including revolvers nearly identical to the gun used by Tirado.

But in the Post database, when it comes to most cases involving BB guns and the like, readers are left with the impression police regularly shoot suspects armed with nothing more threatening than a child’s plaything.

How should Post readers judge the case of Malcolm Comeaux, who was killed by FBI agents attempting to arrest him? The Houston Chronicle quotes police saying that Comeaux “suddenly grabbed what appeared to be a black revolver handgun from his waistband as the agents had their guns drawn. Detectives later determined that the object was a pellet gun that resembled a handgun.”

According to the Post, Comeaux was “a 24-year-old Black man with a toy weapon.”

Eric Felten is an investigative correspondent for RealClearInvestigations, reporting on government corruption. He is a former columnist for the Wall Street Journal and previously a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard University. Felten has been published in Washingtonian, People, National Geographic Traveler, The Weekly Standard, Daily Beast, National Review, Spectator USA, and Reader’s Digest.
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