An attorney for the family of Tamir Rice blasted Cleveland city and police officials on Monday for their suggestion in a court document filed late last week that the 12-year-old boy was responsible for his own death at the hands of city police officers in November. In response, city officials apologized and promised to drop that language in a new court document.
In the court filing, which was a formal response from the city to a federal lawsuit by the Rice family, city attorneys declare that Tamir and his family “were directly and proximately caused by their own acts. . .,” and added that Tamir caused his own death “by the failure. . . to exercise due care to avoid injury.”
That contention — that Tamir, who is shown on video playing with a toy gun in a park near his home when officers arrive and he is shot in the stomach, caused his own death — angered activists against police brutality and for civil rights, as well as the Rice legal team.
“What they said is incredulous at best. It’s unbelievable,” said Walter Madison, one of the Rice family’s attorneys, during an interview with The Washington Post on Monday in which he said the city’s response was further evidence of police arrogance. “There are a number of things that we in society don’t allow 12-year-olds to do. We don’t allow them to vote, we don’t allow them to drink. In court we don’t try them as adults. They don’t have the capacity to understand the consequences of their actions.”
On Monday afternoon, Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson apologized to the Rice family and Cleveland residents “for our poor use of words and our insensitivity” in the filing.
“In an attempt to protect all of our defenses, we used words and we phrased things in such a way that was very insensitive,” he said at a news conference. “Very insensitive to tragedy in general, the family and the victim in particular.”
He said the city would be filing an amended court document using more sensitive language.
Tamir was shot on Nov. 22 as he played in a park on Cleveland’s westside. A resident exiting a nearby community center had phoned police, noting that there was a boy playing with what looked like a gun — but noted to the dispatcher that it was likely a toy.
Those close to the police department have advanced the narrative that the officers, unaware that the caller indicated Tamir was likely playing with a toy, expected the boy to run. Instead, as they jumped a curb and drove at him and a playground gazebo, Tamir took a step toward the rapidly advancing police cruiser — startling one of the emerging officers, who shot him.
While initial police accounts suggested that Tamir had been with a group of other children, had been seen tucking the toy gun into his waistband, and was told several times to drop the toy, video released of the shooting paints a much different account. Tamir is seen talking on a cellphone and throwing snowballs alone in the park. Within seconds of the police emerging — likely before officers could have given him several instructions — he is shot and bleeding on the ground.
In the weeks after the shooting, it would come to light that Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir, had been a questionable hire by the Cleveland Police and that another area police department had deemed him emotionally unstable.
“What the city officials have done for a 12-year-old is set a new standard for children in their response, and all of that assumes that they’re not responsible for hiring this guy who was emotionally unfit to be a police officer,” Madison said.
Tamir’s death was one in a series of high profile police shootings of black men in 2014 that sparked a renewed national push for police reform and accountability. The shooting came just days before grand juries in Ferguson, Mo. and Staten Island, N.Y. New York City would opt against filing charges against the police officers involved in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.
In an attempt to retain public trust, Cleveland’s black mayor and police chief took steps to work with activists who burst into protest following Rice’s shooting, and city council members have worked with some activist groups to find common ground. Meanwhile, the city is working with the DOJ to agree to some policing reforms after the federal agency concluded that Cleveland police are systemically reliant on excessive force in their daily policing.
In a news briefing on Friday, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson defended his record — dating back to his time as a city council member — of combating excessive force by police officers. His office provided city documents noting that, since he took office in 2006, the use of deadly force by Cleveland Police officers has declined 48 percent.
“Reform is not new to me,” Jackson said. “Reform is what we do.”
But efforts on the ground have consistently been overshadowed by statements and stances by city and police officials that have inflamed passions and tensions.
Last week, in an piece by well-known Cleveland journalist Connie Schultz, a former local newspaper columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, the head of the local police union blamed Rice for his own death.
“He’s menacing. He’s 5-feet-7, 191 pounds. He wasn’t that little kid you’re seeing in pictures,” Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association president Steve Loomis said in the POLITICO Magazine piece. “He’s a 12-year-old in an adult body.”
The new filing in the civil case, which riled some community leaders and local activist groups, comes as many in Cleveland anxiously await the conclusion of the formal investigation into the shooting — which is being headed by the county sheriff’s office. Citing the ongoing investigation, city officials declined in their court filing to address many of the specifics of the case.
This post has been updated with Jackson’s comments. First published: 9:59 a.m.