CLEVELAND — Officials here are urging calm after a local grand jury decided not to bring criminal charges against a white rookie Cleveland police officer who in November 2014 shot and killed a 12-year-old African American boy.
“The Grand Jury has fully investigated this case and made its final decision,” Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said Monday. “Now it is time for our community to learn from this tragedy and start to heal.”
Civil rights activists have called for fresh protests in Cleveland, where police are still working to implement broad changes following a 2014 Justice Department finding that they use their weapons too often.
But McGinty on Monday called “for the leaders of our community to respect the process and the decision of the grand jury and to urge others to express their opinions in a peaceful and lawful manner.”
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson also urged the public to react “peacefully and democratically.”
The grand jury’s decision closed a year-long investigation into one of several police shootings that sparked nationwide protests. It also prompted small demonstrations at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center and at Cudell Park, the recreation center where Tamir Rice was playing with a toy gun on the day he was fatally shot.
In announcing the decision, McGinty said that newly enhanced surveillance video made it “undisputably clear” that the boy was reaching into his waistband for the toy — which was “indistinguishable” from a real gun — just before Officer Timothy Loehmann opened fire.
“The outcome will not cheer anyone, nor should it,” McGinty said of the grand jury’s decision. “The death of Tamir Rice was an absolute tragedy. But it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime.”
[READ MORE: The Washington Post’s police shooting project]
The case highlights the extraordinary hurdles to pursuing criminal charges when police kill someone, even when the victim is a child. Before the shooting, Tamir can be seen on the surveillance tape playing with snowballs and pointing his gun at imaginary villains. Then Loehmann and his partner drive up. Because the gun appeared to be real, McGinty said, they were reasonably afraid for their lives — and legally justified in responding with deadly force.
McGinty said he informed Tamir’s mother of the grand jury’s decision before announcing it publicly. “It was a tough conversation,” he said. “She was broken up.”
In a statement, Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, said she was “devastated” by the decision. She claimed McGinty had “deliberately sabotaged the case,” and she urged federal officials to pursue civil rights charges.
“I don’t want my child to have died for nothing and I refuse to let his legacy or his name be ignored,” the statement said. “As the video shows, Officer Loehmann shot my son in less than a second. All I wanted was someone to be held accountable.”
The shooting took place on Nov. 22, 2014, as Loehmann and his partner, Officer Frank Garmback, were responding to a call about a man with a gun outside a local recreation center. Although the caller specified to the dispatcher that the person was possibly a child playing with a toy, that information was not relayed to Loehmann and Garmback, who handled the call as an “active shooter” situation, authorities said.
The officers approached the boy in their cruiser, pulling directly up to a park gazebo on snow-covered grass. The car slid, and Loehmann opened the door, yelling “continuously ‘show me your hands’ as loud as I could,” Loehmann said in his statement to the grand jury.
“I kept my eyes on the suspect the entire time,” Loehmann said. “I was fixed on his waistband and hand area. I was trained to keep my eyes on his hands because ‘hands may kill.’ ”
But instead of complying, the boy lifted his shirt and reached into his waistband, Loehmann said, prompting the officer to run for cover behind the cruiser.
When he saw Tamir’s elbow moving upward and the weapon coming up out of his pants, Loehmann said, he fired two shots.
Loehmann and Garmback both told the grand jury that Tamir appeared to be much older than 12. Prosecutors stressed that Tamir was large for his age — a 175-pound boy who wore size-36 pants and size-12 shoes.
“If we put ourselves in the victim’s shoes, as prosecutors and detectives try to do, it is likely that Tamir — whose size made him look much older and who had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day — either intended to hand it to the officers or to show them it wasn’t a real gun,” McGinty said. “But there was no way for the officers to know that, because they saw the events rapidly unfolding in front of them from a very different perspective.”
McGinty called the shooting “this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved.” He confirmed that he had not recommended that the grand jury bring criminal charges against the officers.
The boy’s death came just days before massive protests and unrest would break out in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City after officers in those cities were cleared in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Many activists had hoped that Tamir’s shooting — the death of a boy, in a park, playing with a toy — would yield what has proved largely elusive for police-brutality protesters: an indictment in the case of the police shooting of an African American.
Though thousands of people have been shot and killed by police over the past decade, only 65 officers have been charged with a crime in connection to a fatal on-duty shooting, according to a Washington Post analysis. Of those, only a tiny fraction have been convicted.
As night fell, about three dozen demonstrators gathered in the public park where Tamir was shot. They joined hands in the rain for a moment of silence, then began chanting “No justice, no peace” as they marched across town toward the Justice Center.
The decision not to indict “is a burden on the family and the community. But at the same time, it’s a burden on the police department,” said Angel Arroyo, an activist with the Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance. Loehmann is “going to have to live for the rest of his life knowing that a 12-year-old boy lost his life. So it’s just pain all the way around for our community.”
Across the city and the state, public officials sympathized with that sentiment while pleading for patience.
“Tamir Rice’s death was a heartbreaking tragedy and I understand how this decision will leave many people asking themselves if justice was served,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate, said in a statement. “We all lose, however, if we give in to anger and frustration and let it divide us.”
The case was initially investigated by the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department, which turned its findings over to McGinty’s office. As the investigation stretched from weeks to months and eventually past the one-year mark, the Rice family and civil rights activists grew increasingly agitated, convinced that no charges for the officers were forthcoming.
McGinty fueled their frustration by releasing witness statements and other evidence to the press as it was presented to grand jurors — an unusual move that the prosecutor said was intended to provide transparency but that attorneys for Tamir’s family insist was meant to telegraph that McGinty planned to let the officers walk free.
Among the pieces of evidence McGinty released were the assessments of two independent experts hired to review the case. Both found that Loehmann had acted reasonably.
“There can be no doubt that Rice’s death was tragic and, indeed, when one considers his age, heartbreaking,” one of the experts, S. Lamar Sims, a Colorado prosecutor, said in his report. “However . . . I conclude that Officer Loehmann’s belief that Rice posed a threat of serious physical harm or death was objectively reasonable as was his response to that perceived threat.”
In a statement, Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), the former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, declared that McGinty’s tactics had “tainted” the investigation.
Tamir’s mother echoed that view.
“Prosecutor McGinty deliberately sabotaged the case, never advocating for my son, and acting instead like the police officers’ defense attorney,” she said in a statement. “In a time in which a non-indictment for two police officers who have killed an unarmed black child is business as usual, we mourn for Tamir, and for all of the black people who have been killed by the police without justice.”
This file, first published at 1:47 p.m. on Dec. 28, has been updated. Cahill is a freelancer. Lowery and Chokshi reported from Washington.