On November 22, 2014, Tamir Rice was throwing snowballs and playing with a toy pellet gun in a Cleveland park when a police car rolled into the snowy field. Within two seconds of getting out of his squad car, officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed the 12-year-old. The officer has claimed he thought the pellet gun was a real firearm.
On Monday, the city of Cleveland announced it had agreed to pay the Rice family $6 million in a lawsuit settlement over the shooting.
The settlement brings some solace to the family after a year and a half of inaction. Previously, former Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced there would be no criminal charges filed against the officers involved.
McGinty said that while there was evidence of miscommunication between a 911 dispatcher and the police officers, there was not enough evidence to suggest that the cops had cleared the very high bar for criminal charges in police shooting cases. So he recommended no charges, and a grand jury complied.
McGinty was later ousted from his position, largely over his handling of the shooting.
The Rice shooting garnered nationwide attention, elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement that's protested racial disparities in law enforcement's use of force following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. All of this is especially of concern in Cleveland, where investigations have found the police department has a troubling history of using excessive use of force.
Cleveland police officer shot Rice within seconds of arriving at the scene
Loehmann shot Rice within two seconds of getting out of his patrol car, according to surveillance video obtained by Cleveland.com's Cory Shaffer. He then stumbled back and fell, reportedly hurting his leg and ankle. Loehmann's partner, Garmback, remained at the wheel of the car.
Warning: Graphic footage of the shooting and its aftermath:
According to documents from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department, it's unclear whether Loehmann shouted any warnings before opening fire. Loehmann claimed that Rice grabbed the pellet gun, which he thought was an actual firearm, forcing him to shoot — a claim that McGinty, the former local prosecutor, said he believed.
"He gave me no choice," Loehmann told another officer moments after the shooting. "He reached for the gun and there was nothing I could do."
It's crucial, legally, that Loehmann perceived the pellet gun as a real firearm. As I'll explain later, what matters legally is not whether Rice actually posed a threat, but whether Loehmann perceived one. So if Loehmann genuinely thought Rice was carrying a real gun and aiming it at other people, that would legally justify using deadly force, even if Rice was in reality doing no such thing and the gun was a toy.
Garmback quickly reported the shooting to dispatch and requested emergency personnel respond to the scene. But the officers — neither of whom reportedly had first aid kits or training — then stood around without applying first aid for about four minutes after Rice was shot. It wasn't until an FBI agent, who is a trained paramedic, walked into the scene that Rice received first aid.
The FBI agent described Loehmann and Garmback as almost shell-shocked — wanting to do something but not knowing what to do.
Rice acknowledged the FBI agent, showing signs of life as the agent tried to tend to the boy's wounds without any medical tools. "He turned over and acknowledged and looked at me, and he, like, reached for my hand," the agent said, later adding that Rice said his name and mumbled something about the pellet gun.
The video also shows Rice's sister running to the scene, reportedly to check on her wounded brother. The officers confronted the 14-year-old girl, wrestled her to the ground, and restrained her in the police car.
Paramedics arrived a few minutes later. They eventually took Rice to the hospital, where he died on November 23.
Police initially estimated Rice was around 20 years old
The FBI agent at the scene, Loehmann, and Garmback thought Rice —who was 5-foot-7-inches and 195 pounds — was an older teenager or in his 20s. "Shots fired, male down, black male, maybe 20," said the officer who called in the shooting, according to BuzzFeed's Mike Hayes.
It's not uncommon for police to overestimate the age and size of black boys. Various studies have found that the general public and police tend to see them as less innocent and older. For police officers, this can result in overestimating them as a threat.
Perception matters a lot in the court system: What matters legally is whether an officer perceives a threat; that perception legally justifies using deadly force, not whether the victim actually posed a threat. So if Loehmann really thought that Rice was much older, that could help justify his use of deadly force, since a 20-year-old is a much more plausible threat than a 12-year-old.
A 911 caller warned the pellet gun was "probably fake"
Rice had in his waistband a pellet gun with the orange safety indicator removed, and officers said he clutched the gun when they arrived. Officers did not know the weapon was a toy at the time of the shooting, according to police.
The friend who loaned Rice the gun reportedly told him to be careful with it since it looked real, according to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department's investigation into the shooting. The friend had apparently taken the gun apart to fix it, and couldn't reattach the orange safety indicator that indicates the gun is fake.
Police arrived on the scene after receiving a 911 call. A caller told 911 dispatchers that a "juvenile" is "pulling a gun in and out of his pants and pointing it at people." He later added, "It's probably fake."
But the 911 dispatcher never relayed to Loehmann and Garmback that the caller thought Rice was a juvenile or that the gun was probably fake. She refused an interview with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department to explain why she didn't provide that information to the officers.
The officer who shot Rice was judged unfit for duty by a suburban police department in 2012
Loehmann began working at the Cleveland police department in March, but he previously worked for six months at a small suburban police department in Ohio. Loehmann resigned after a report deemed him unfit for duty, in part because he couldn't properly handle a firearm.
The Guardian's Tom McCarthy reported:
A police officer who shot a 12-year-old dead in a Cleveland park late last month had been judged unfit for police service two years earlier by a small suburban force where he worked for six months, according to records released on Wednesday.
Officer Timothy Loehmann, who killed Tamir Rice on 22 November, was specifically faulted for breaking down emotionally while handling a live gun. During a training episode at a firing range, Loehmann was reported to be "distracted and weepy" and incommunicative. "His handgun performance was dismal," deputy chief Jim Polak of the Independence, Ohio, police department wrote in an internal memo.
The memo concludes with a recommendation that Loehmann be "released from the employment of the City of Independence". Less than a week later, on 3 December 2012, Loehmann resigned.
Other records reported by Cleveland.com's Andrew Tobias showed Loehmann failed the written entrance exam for the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department. He also reportedly failed to get hired at police departments in Akron, Euclid, and Parma Heights.
City officials said they weren't aware of Loehmann's troubled history at other police departments when they hired him.
A federal investigation found Cleveland police are poorly trained and inappropriately violent
A Department of Justice investigation, which didn't look at the Rice shooting, found Cleveland police officers used excessive deadly force, including shootings and head strikes with impact weapons; unnecessary, excessive, and retaliatory force, including Tasers, chemical sprays, and their fists; and excessive force against people with mental illness or in crisis, including one situation in which officers were called exclusively to check up on someone's well-being.
Police officers also used "poor and dangerous tactics" that often put them "in situations where avoidable force becomes inevitable and places officers and civilians at unnecessary risk," according to the report.
The Justice Department attributed many of these problems to inadequate training and supervision. "Supervisors tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it," the report said. "Officers report that they receive little supervision, guidance, and support from the Division, essentially leaving them to determine for themselves how to perform their difficult and dangerous jobs."
Former US Attorney General Eric Holder, who headed the Justice Department at the time of the investigation, argued that fixing these issues is crucial for both the general public and police. "Accountability and legitimacy are essential for communities to trust their police departments, and for there to be genuine collaboration between police and the citizens they serve," he said.
Black people are much more likely to be killed by police than their white peers
An analysis of the available FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind shows that US police kill black people at disproportionate rates: They accounted for 31 percent of police killing victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population. Although the data is incomplete, since it's based on voluntary reports from police agencies around the country, it highlights the vast disparities in how police use force.
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones, and Eric Sagara reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."
The disparities appear to be even starker for unarmed suspects, according to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian. Racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.
There have been several high-profile police killings since 2014 involving black suspects. In Baltimore, six police officers were indicted for the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. In North Charleston, South Carolina, Michael Slager was charged with murder and fired from the police department after shooting Walter Scott, who was fleeing and unarmed at the time. In Ferguson, Darren Wilson killed unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. In New York City, NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting the unarmed 43-year-old black man in a chokehold.
One possible explanation for the racial disparities: subconscious biases. Studies show that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
Part of the solution to this type of bias is better training that helps cops acknowledge and deal with their potential subconscious prejudices. But critics also argue that more accountability could help deter future brutality or excessive use of force, since it would make it clear that there are consequences to the misuse and abuse of police powers. Yet right now, lax legal standards make it difficult to legally punish individual police officers for use of force, even when it might be excessive.
Police only have to reasonably perceive a threat to justify shooting
Legally, what most matters in these shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their lives were in danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat.
Constitutionally, "police officers are allowed to shoot under two circumstances," David Klinger, a University of Missouri St. Louis professor who studies use of force, told Vox's Dara Lind. The first circumstance is "to protect their life or the life of another innocent party" — what departments call the "defense-of-life" standard. The second circumstance is to prevent a suspect from escaping, but only if the officer has probable cause to think the suspect poses a dangerous threat to others.
The logic behind the second circumstance, Klinger said, comes from a Supreme Court decision called Tennessee v. Garner. That case involved a pair of police officers who shot a 15-year-old boy as he fled from a burglary. (He'd stolen $10 and a purse from a house.) The court ruled that cops couldn't shoot every felon who tried to escape. But, as Klinger said, "they basically say that the job of a cop is to protect people from violence, and if you've got a violent person who's fleeing, you can shoot them to stop their flight."
The key to both of the legal standards — defense of life and fleeing a violent felony — is that it doesn't matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer's "objectively reasonable" belief that there is a threat.
That standard comes from the other Supreme Court case that guides use-of-force decisions: Graham v. Connor. This was a civil lawsuit brought by a man who'd survived his encounter with police officers, but who'd been treated roughly, had his face shoved into the hood of a car, and broken his foot — all while he was suffering a diabetic attack. The court didn't rule on whether the officers' treatment of him had been justified, but it did say that the officers couldn't justify their conduct just based on whether their intentions were good. They had to demonstrate that their actions were "objectively reasonable," given the circumstances and compared to what other police officers might do.
What's "objectively reasonable" changes as the circumstances change. "One can't just say, 'Because I could use deadly force 10 seconds ago, that means I can use deadly force again now,'" Walter Katz, a California attorney who specializes in oversight of law enforcement agencies, said.
In general, officers are given lot of legal latitude to use force without fear of punishment. The intention behind these legal standards is to give police officers leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. And although critics argue that these legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people, police officers say they are essential to their safety.
For some critics, the question isn't what's legally justified but rather what's preventable. "We have to get beyond what is legal and start focusing on what is preventable. Most are preventable," Ronald Davis, a former police chief who heads the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, told the Washington Post. Police "need to stop chasing down suspects, hopping fences, and landing on top of someone with a gun," he added. "When they do that, they have no choice but to shoot."
Police rarely get prosecuted for shootings
Police are very rarely prosecuted for shootings — and not just because the law allows them wide latitude to use force on the job. Sometimes the investigations fall onto the same police department the officer is from, which creates major conflicts of interest. Other times the only available evidence comes from eyewitnesses, who may not be as trustworthy in the public eye as a police officer.
"There is a tendency to believe an officer over a civilian, in terms of credibility," David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer who co-wrote Prosecuting Misconduct: Law and Litigation, told Vox's Amanda Taub. "And when an officer is on trial, reasonable doubt has a lot of bite. A prosecutor needs a very strong case before a jury will say that somebody who we generally trust to protect us has so seriously crossed the line as to be subject to a conviction."
If police are charged, they're very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
The numbers suggest that it would have been a truly rare situation if the officer who shot and killed Rice was charged and convicted of a crime. But at least with the lawsuit settlement, the family may get some closure for the shooting.