James Downie is The Post’s digital opinions editor.
“On November 22, 2014, at 3:30 p.m., Tamir Rice, age 12, was shot and killed at Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland, Ohio by on-duty Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) Officer Timothy Loehmann.” Thus begins Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty’s report on Rice’s death. This week, a grand jury decided not to charge the rookie Cleveland police officer. It was a perversely fitting end to a year of law-enforcement controversies.
The Tamir Rice case was rife with errors from the start, all compounded by race. The 911 caller told the dispatcher that Rice was “probably a juvenile” and that the gun he was seen brandishing was likely fake, yet the dispatcher didn’t pass on that seemingly crucial information. Loehmann and his partner estimated Rice’s age as at least 18 — not surprising, given that studies have shown that police officers often perceive black youths as older (and less innocent) than they are. Though Loehmann has said that he told Rice to “show me your hands” multiple times before shooting, surveillance footage shows that fewer than two seconds passed from when the police car reached Rice until Loehmann opened fire.
Then there’s the fact that Loehmann shouldn’t have had a gun and badge in the first place. Before joining the CDP, he had resigned from a smaller department after being found unfit for duty and recommended for dismissal. “I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct these deficiencies,” wrote Deputy Chief Jim Polak of the Independence, Ohio, police. Loehmann then was rejected by four other departments before the CDP hired him.
But the fact is that under current legal standards, it was easy for Loehmann and the Cleveland police to avoid accountability. The U.S. Supreme Court has not been clear about whether the run-up to an officer-involved shooting should factor into whether the use of force is reasonable. The grand jury took the view that all that mattered was whether Loehmann felt he was in danger at the moment he shot Rice. It did so at least in part at the recommendation of McGinty, whose questionable conduct in this case included long delays in the grand jury process and his suggestion that Rice’s parents had “their own economic motives” for seeking justice for their dead son.
It did not matter to McGinty or the grand jury that the officers had decided to drive almost right up to Rice, effectively forcing a confrontation, rather than try to de-escalate the situation. It did not matter that Loehmann’s claim was tough to square with the video evidence. It did not matter that Loehmann was more likely to feel threatened because of the color of Rice’s skin. It did not matter that, with better training and information, the encounter might not have turned fatal. And it seems likely that neither the 911 operator who failed to note questions about the gun’s authenticity and Rice’s age, nor the people at the CDP who hired a clearly unqualified officer, will face any consequences, either. A 12-year-old boy is dead, and no one is to blame.
Nearly 1,000 people were shot and killed by police officers in 2015. Most of these cases were justified, but that cannot be good enough. There are too many cases like Rice’s, or that of David Kassick, who was shot twice in the back while lying on the ground after being Tasered, or of Eric Harris, shot by a 73-year-old reserve deputy who effectively paid Tulsa police to let him play cop. And then there are the mentally ill, many of whom might have survived encounters with police if better training procedures had been in place.
More and more, thanks to video evidence, Americans are seeing the stark reality of police officers who are supposed to protect and serve abusing the deadly power we entrust them with. Rather than holding these agents of the state to a higher standard, we let them set their own standards, which often provide for broader exceptions and protections than are allowed the public at large. We give them wider latitude to mete out death and greater protection from accountability. In doing so, we undermine police-community trust, which makes the already tough job of policing only more difficult in the long run.
In the new year and beyond, we should take a hard look at how best to protect both officers’ and civilians’ lives. Cities such as Las Vegas that have revamped their training regimens have reduced civilian fatalities. And we need to go beyond determining whether a police shooting is legal under current standards and ask whether those standards need changing. If nothing else, that a 12-year-old has been shot dead and no one is at fault suggests that we have a lot of work to do.