clock menu more-arrow no yes

Grand jury says police shooting of Tamir Rice was legally justified. That's the problem.

Jordan Gonzales/AFP via Getty Images

On Monday, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty announced a grand jury's decision: There will be no criminal charges against the Cleveland police officers who shot and killed a 12-year-old boy in 2014. And unfortunately, it seems likely that this decision will soon mark the end of the media's focus on this shooting — even though it shouldn't.

Tamir Rice was playing at a Cleveland park with a toy pellet gun last November when someone called 911 on him, fearing that he was wielding a real firearm. The caller told the 911 dispatcher that he thought the gun was fake, but that information wasn't relayed to police. Officers rolled onto the scene, and, within two seconds of getting out of his squad car, officer Timothy Loehmann shot Rice, fatally wounding the boy. Later, Loehmann said he thought Rice was carrying an actual gun, and that Rice reached — a disputed claim — for it.

On Monday, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office released a report that essentially backed up Loehmann, arguing that the officer was right in believing that Rice posed a threat, and therefore right in using deadly force.

But the report, grand jury decision, and the intense media focus on both shows exactly what's wrong with the dialogue surrounding police shootings. Instead of asking whether Loehmann's actions were ethical, moral, or followed best practices, the conversation immediately shifts to whether his actions were legal. But legality doesn't tell us anything about whether the shooting was preventable or acceptable — and that's really what we should care about.

The Rice shooting may be legal, but it's not acceptable

For a police officer to justify the use of deadly force, he has to reasonably perceive a threat. A threat does not actually have to be present, just the reasonable perception of it. (Reasonableness, in this case, was judged by a grand jury.) This legal standard is purposely loose; the intention is to give cops leeway to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders without the constant fear that they'll be punished if they act.

In the case of Loehmann, it's easy to see how he could reasonably perceive a threat: He thought Rice was older (around 20), and that Rice reached for a real gun, so he thought he needed to use deadly force to eliminate an immediate threat.

But the Rice case shows exactly what's wrong with focusing too much on the legal issues. Within two seconds of getting out of the squad car, Loehmann shot Rice for allegedly clutching a pellet gun in an open-carry state, meaning people are allowed to openly carry real firearms in Ohio. Instead of asking how something like this happens or could be prevented, the issue has — as is common with police shooting cases — quickly shifted to what prosecutors will do and what grand juries will decide.

But we should be asking how this could have been prevented. Could police have parked further from the scene, and approached Rice more carefully? Could they have called for the boy to put down the gun from the squad car, instead of getting out immediately as the car pulled up and shooting Rice within two seconds? Could states and the federal government change legal standards for police officers' use of force to encourage cops to act more cautiously before opening fire? These are fair questions, yet analyses focused on the current legal issues will always miss them.

"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."

Another way to put it, as criminal justice writer Radley Balko wrote in the Washington Post, is whether these shootings should be deemed acceptable by society even if they are legal:

Asking if a police shooting was legal tells us nothing about whether or not we should change the law. Asking whether or not it was within a police agency's policies and procedures tells us nothing about the wisdom of those policies and procedures. Of course, both of those questions are important if your primary interest is in punishing police officers for these incidents. But while it can certainly be frustrating to see cops get a pass over and over again, even in incidents that seem particularly egregious, focusing on the individual officers involved hasn't (and won't) stopped people from getting killed.

So the concern isn't really whether the Rice shooting was legal. According to a grand jury and a local prosecutor, it was. But that doesn't mean we should move on. We could, instead, focus on changing the law, or forcing police departments to change their policies for how they approach these scenarios even if they know that they can legally get away with them. A child's life could literally depend on it.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.