Last November, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy, after mistaking his toy pellet gun for an actual firearm. The case has become a part of the much broader controversy over racial disparities in police use of force and the criminal justice system — leading to demands that the prosecutor on the case do everything possible to hold the police officers involved accountable.
But last week, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty spoke about the grand jury proceedings and suggested that the Rice family had "economic motives" for pursuing justice, as local TV station WKYC reported. "They waited until they didn't like the reports they received," McGinty said. "They're very interesting people. Let me just leave it at that. And they have their own economic motives."
Let's put this in perspective: A police officer killed a 12-year-old child. Instead of assuming that grieving family members — and his mother in particular — want justice for their 12-year-old's death, McGinty seems to assume that they want money.
It's true the Rice family could get a large payout if the family wins its lawsuit against the city of Cleveland. But the large payout serves a greater public purpose: If a city doesn't hold its police force accountable through criminal law, the civil lawsuit allows some measure of accountability by forcing Cleveland to literally pay for wrongdoing. The money is not the obvious interest in the Rice case so much as a mother, who is going through unimaginable pain, getting some sort of justice for her dead son.
Prosecutors tend to go easy on police officers
One big reason civil lawsuits are necessary is because prosecutors by and large go easier on police officers, allowing cops to skip a potential criminal trial.
Prosecutors hold enormous sway in grand juries. The common joke in the legal profession is that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.
But prosecutors have enormous conflicts of interest when it comes to prosecuting police officers: Prosecutors rely on local police to do their everyday jobs, since the cops are typically necessary to gather evidence for that blockbuster trial that could catapult a prosecutor's career into the spotlight. So prosecutors are motivated to show leniency to the police, since going too hard on them could piss off the entire department and make it much harder to work with them during that next important case.
One example: After a prosecutor announced criminal charges against two police officers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the local police department reportedly kept the prosecutor's office out of other hearings.
The motivation to side with police instead of victims of police use of force helps explain how a prosecutor could see a grieving mother's quest for justice as economically motivated. And it explains why prosecutors generally turn grand juries in police killing cases — from Eric Garner in New York City to Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — toward the pro-police side.
Policy experts and criminal justice reformers have proposed ideas to change the system — like appointing independent prosecutors or investigative bodies to oversee police killing cases. McGinty's outrageous comment in the Rice case highlights why this kind of reform might be necessary.