A grand jury has declined to press charges against Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, the men responsible for the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Tamir was playing with a pellet gun outside a recreational center in Cleveland, Ohio when he was killed in November of last year. His death further contributed to the national outrage over the growing number of African American deaths at the hands of white police officers.
This past Monday, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty advised the grand jury not to press charges on the two officers, saying that the deadly encounter happened the way it did due to a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications” rather than the officers’ misconduct. McGinty cited enhanced surveillance footage that showed Tamir’s last moments as “indisputable” proof that the boy was drawing the pellet gun from his waistband when the police officers arrived on scene. McGinty speculated that Tamir did this either to relinquish it to the officers or to show them that it was toy and thus posed no threat to the officers, bystanders, or himself. But Tamir’s actions were deemed enough reason for the officer who fired, Loehmann, to fear for his life.
Tamir’s death occurred on November 23, 2014, just days after a Ferguson, Missouri grand jury decided not to press criminal charges on Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown. Video footage from a security camera pointing at the gazebo in front of which Tamir was killed show the boy playing with the pellet gun, occasionally pointing it or stowing it in his waistband while walking around. The video then shows a person sitting down inside the gazebo on the phone with 9-1-1. The caller mentions to the operator that the gun is “probably fake” and adds that the person holding the gun is “probably a juvenile” near the end of the call. Neither of these two details were relayed to the officers dispatched to the scene. Within two seconds of pulling up to the gazebo where Tamir was sitting, Loehmann hops out of the police cruiser and shoots Tamir twice, hitting him once in his torso. Tamir laid in front of the gazebo, his blood staining the white snow a vivid crimson, for nearly five minutes without receiving first aid from either officer before a medically-trained FBI agent who was near by arrived.
Instead of confronting Tamir from a safe distance like one would expect a trained police officer to do when faced with an armed suspect, Officer Garmback pulls up right next to him. Before the cruiser is even able to come to a complete stop, Officer Loehmann’s door swings open as he hops out and shoots the 12-year-old boy twice. The officers claimed that they gave Tamir verbal warnings to drop the weapon before shooting him, but the boy does not seem to take notice of them until they pull up right next to him and shoot him. The amount of time it between the police officers arriving on scene and Tamir getting shot makes the officers’ accounts physically impossible. Their approach of the situation was rash to begin with, but what really topped it off was their failure to give Tamir potentially life-saving first aid after they shot him.
It is not simply the police officers who are at fault in the death of Tamir, but also the operator who first received the 9-1-1 call. The operator never mentions the fact that the caller thought the gun was fake nor that the suspect was probably a juvenile. By failing to mention these two details, the responding officers went in to the situation believing the suspect was an armed man rather than a boy who was playing around. Even if the operator were to have mentioned these details to the officers, I have a suspicion it would have ended no differently than it did.
One must keep in mind that Ohio is an open-carry state. If the caller and the officers truly thought Tamir was a man openly carrying a firearm, then he would have had the legal right to do so as he pleased. Maybe Tamir was one of the good guys with guns you hear being referenced after every mass shooting and he was simply exercising his second amendment right by scaring off a potential misunderstood gunman. But Tamir was not a burly man, and his toy was not a real gun. He was a boy playing with a pellet gun in public, an action I cannot condone but also one that should not warrant death.
One must also keep in mind that the police officer who killed Tamir, Timothy Loehmann had been released by the Independence, Ohio police department in 2012 and was deemed unfit for duty due to lacking the emotional stability to be a police officer. In the aftermath of the shooting, Independence deputy police chief Jim Polak wrote to the department’s human resource manager. In the memo, Polak said Loehmann could not follow “basic functions as instructed”, adding that personal relationship problems had caused him to become visibly “distracted and weepy”. The deputy chief concluded that Loehmann exhibited “a pattern of a lack of maturity, indiscretion and not following instructions” which no amount of training would fix. This did not matter to the Cleveland PD, as they never bothered to look at his personnel file previous to hiring him.
Supporters of the grand jury’s decision claim that the gun’s missing orange safety tip made it look like an actual gun, thus resulting in the officer’s fear for his life. This is a credible point because the pellet gun that Tamir was playing with looks eerily realistic, especially from a distance.
Yet Tamir never pointed his weapon at the officers, let alone give them a good glimpse of the gun. He barely had enough time to slightly reach for his waistband before he was mowed down by Officer Loehmann; how would either of the two officers have been able to see the gun and determine whether it was real or not in such a short span of time, especially considering that they were not able to see the tip? Rather than defuse the situation as they should have, they decided to shoot first and ask questions later.
These same supporters quip that had Tamir not been playing with a realistic-looking gun at a public park, he would have still been alive. But there have been various instances of white people pointing guns at bystanders, even police officers, yet the majority of them are deescalated and do not result in any deaths. Why was Tamir’s case different?
The grand jury’s verdict continued the trend of allowing police officers to kill young African American men with impunity, so long as they had reasonable fear for their lives. It is true that Tamir Rice should not have been playing with a pellet gun that was missing its orange safety tip in public, but that alone does not warrant the child’s death. The police officers that were dispatched to the scene acted recklessly and cost him his young life. They could have taken a different approach, a more sensible one that allowed them to properly asses whether or not Tamir was an actual threat. Yet there will be no consequences for their actions. No time spent in court, let alone prison for the two officers. And so the story goes; another African American gets killed by the police, resulting in another hashtag, another round of protests, and another call for system reform. Both sides of the aisle will shout and bicker over the death of Tamir and who was at fault, yet I am doubtful any meaningful change will come about because of his death. Eventually, tensions will reach a tipping point, where the very fabric of America is torn apart due to this ever-growing perceived division between law enforcement and the innocent that they oppress and abuse. Let’s just hope our country is able to halt this terrifying trend before it is too late.