Why police encouraged a teenager with a gun to patrol Kenosha’s streets

Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with murder in the shooting deaths of two people during the violent protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, had a run-in with the police earlier in the night — an extremely friendly one.

In footage from about 15 minutes before the shootings pieced together by the New York Times’s Visual Investigations team, you can see Rittenhouse walk up to an armored police vehicle and chat with officers. A police officer pops out of one vehicle’s hatch and tosses bottles to Rittenhouse’s associates, members of an armed militia. “We appreciate you guys, we really do,” the officer says before driving off.

The young-looking Rittenhouse is under the legal age for firearm ownership and was carrying an assault rifle, which appears to be a misdemeanor under Wisconsin law. Instead of stopping him and asking for proof of age, the police give him water and an attaboy. And when he tried to surrender after the shootings, the police went right by him, even as bystanders were telling them that Rittenhouse had shot people.

How can we understand this behavior? Why do the police in Kenosha seem perfectly fine with armed militia members patrolling the streets — behavior that, just minutes later, ended with two people dead? Shouldn’t police want to be the only ones with guns?

A recent paper by University of Arizona sociologist Jennifer Carlson offers some insight into the police’s behavior. She conducted dozens of hours of interviews about guns with 79 police chiefs in three states — Michigan, California, and Arizona — to try to better understand the way police see armed civilians.

Carlson found that police leaders tended to see armed civilians as allies, maybe even informal deputies — provided they fit a set of racially coded descriptors.

“Police chiefs articulated a position of gun populism based on a presumption of racial respectability,” Carlson writes. “‘Good guys with guns’ were marked off as responsible in ways that reflected white, middle-class respectability.”

This helps us understand what happened in Wisconsin as not a bug in the code of American policing, but a feature. There’s a reason anti-police violence protesters have been met with crackdowns, while armed anti-lockdown protesters could menace the Michigan Capitol without incident.

Police — who are heavily white, heavily male, and overwhelmingly conservative politically — see guns as a scourge when they’re in the wrong hands. But the “wrong hands” tend to be Black and brown ones. When respectable-seeming white people arm themselves, police welcome their intervention — even, or perhaps especially, in a tense situation where the potential for escalation to violence is really high.

This is not a new phenomenon; there’s a long history of deeply racialized gun politics in America. In 1967, a group of Black Panthers carried guns in a demonstration outside the California statehouse; shortly thereafter, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signed a bill banning open carry of loaded firearms.

Carlson’s study illustrates how this racial gun politics operates at the level of the streets as well as the statehouse. Officers have significant discretion in how they choose to react to different situations; this discretion is often used in racist and violent fashion. The way the police seemingly encouraged Rittenhouse’s vigilantism is a microcosm of some of the most fundamental problems in American policing.

In her research, Carlson distinguishes between two kinds of attitudes police have toward civilian ownership of firearms.

The first, “gun militarism,” sees armed individuals as a threat to blue lives. “It favors a state monopoly on legitimate violence, whereby police both protected and expanded their own access to firearms while policed and delimited gun access among the racialized, urban populations targeted by the War on Crime,” she writes.

At other times, the police chiefs she interviewed embraced “gun populism”: the idea that “rather than a threat to stability (as under gun militarism), armed civilians may be imagined as generative of social order.” Gun populism is an “embrace of ‘the people’ and a deep suspicion of elites, especially elite lawmakers who aim to regulate gun access in the United States.” In essence, it’s the National Rifle Association view of gun rights.

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