On Saturday afternoon, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was sitting on a swing outside a recreation center in Cleveland, wearing a camouflage hat and hiding a BB gun in his waistband.
When two Cleveland police officers arrived at the scene, a rookie officer saw the boy beneath a gazebo, picking up the gun and tucking it into his waistband. Police said the officer ordered him to raise his hands, but he raised his shirt instead — reaching for the gun. The officer fired twice. One shot hit the boy in the stomach.
Rice was rushed to MetroHealth Medical Center. Early Sunday, he died from his injuries, according to the medical examiner.
The U.S. Justice Department has said it doesn’t keep historical data on such cases, though, similar accidents have been reported from Ohio to Florida to Texas. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 1990 that police in the United States use force some 200 times per year “in a confrontation where an imitation gun had been mistaken for a real firearm.” The issue is how law enforcement officers are supposed to determine in a split second that a realistic-looking weapon is fake — or that the person wielding it is a child.
“The officer had no clue he was a 12-year-old,” Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Jeff Follmer told WKYC-TV. “He had no clue it was a toy gun; he was kind of shocked. He was concentrating more on the hands than on the age. It’s not, ‘Go shoot a 12-year-old with a good fake gun.’ It’s not that scenario at all. This is a compassionate officer.”
He told the Plain Dealer: “We have to assume every gun is real. When we don’t, that’s the day we don’t go home.”
“You have to look at this in the context that this is a 12-year-old boy, not a 35-year-old man with a criminal history,” the family’s attorney, Timothy Kucharski, told the Plain Dealer. “You can’t expect adult reactions out of children.”
Gregory Henderson, a family friend, said Tamir was tall for his age. He liked basketball. He was artistic and smart. He was a well-mannered kid.
“That’s my superhero,” Henderson told WKYC-TV. “Who would’ve thought he would go so soon? He had his whole life ahead. To be 12 years old, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Police, they know what they’re doing.”
Tamir had been playing at the park with his sister and a friend when he was confronted by police. He never shouted or verbally threatened the officers. He never pointed the gun at them. But he did reach for it, police said.
Authorities said the BB gun resembled a semiautomatic handgun. An orange safety marker, intended to identify a toy gun, had been removed, police said. It wasn’t until after the weapon was recovered that investigators determined it was a BB gun.
“Tragedies happen when you rush ahead of the facts,” Kucharski told the newspaper.
The killing comes at a contentious time, as the country waits for a grand jury decision that will determine whether police officer Darren Wilson will face criminal charges for fatally shooting unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In the weeks following the August shooting, people flooded the streets in Ferguson, Mo., calling the killing an issue of race.
However, Kucharski said race wasn’t the issue in Saturday’s shooting.
“This is not a black-and-white issue. This is a right-and-wrong issue. This is not a racial issue. This is about people doing their jobs the right way,” he told WOIO-TV.
The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating the Cleveland police for several years for use of excessive force, according to the Associated Press.
The officers involved in Saturday’s shooting have been put on administrative leave as the department investigates Rice’s death. Detectives collected surveillance video from the recreation center that will be presented to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. The evidence will be presented to a grand jury to determine whether the officer used excessive force.
After the investigation is over, Kucharski said Rice’s family will decide whether to file a civil lawsuit against Cleveland’s police department.
“We are going to conduct our own investigation,” Kucharski told WKYC-TV. “We are going to talk to witnesses. We will get all the 911 tapes, the radio dispatch records as to what was said to the police, what the officers knew, and then after we have conducted a thorough investigation we will make a determination after talking with the family with what we will proceed with legally at that point.”
On Sunday, Ohio State Rep. Alicia Reece (D) announced she will introduce legislation to slap restrictions on BB guns, air rifles and airsoft guns.
Follmer told the Plain Dealer if the bill passes, it could backfire, making it easier for criminals to paint real guns to resemble toys.
“Our guys would still need to take the gun seriously until somebody puts it down,” he said.
Still, Reece said regulation is necessary to avoid potential tragedies, citing another incident in August when police fatally shot a 22-year-old man while he was holding an air rifle at a Wal-Mart in Beavercreek, Ohio.
Kucharski told the Plain Dealer that Tamir’s family is devastated, his mother “inconsolable.”
“She woke up yesterday with a son,” he said. “Today, she woke up without a son.”