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A year after police killed Tamir Rice, his family wants big changes in the investigation

The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown join together for the Justice for All rally in Washington, DC.
The mothers of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Michael Brown join together for the Justice for All rally in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

More than a year after a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the boy's family is calling on the local prosecutor to remove himself from the case and let an independent prosecutor take over the investigation.

The call has been a long time in the making. Over the past several months, the Rice family has complained about the slow progress in the case, and recent comments suggested Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty is approaching the case with a bias in favor of the police officers involved.

But in a dramatic move Monday, a group of organizers presented a petition with more than 100,000 signatures demanding the prosecutor step down from the case. They backed up the petition with a serious threat, according to news outlet Colorlines: If McGinty does not step down, apologize to the Rice family for disparaging remarks, and appoint an independent prosecutor, or if Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine doesn't appoint an independent prosecutor — all by Wednesday — the group will call for the recall of both officials.

The Rice family feels insulted by McGinty

A Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
A Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

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The big demands come a few weeks after the Rice family criticized McGinty, the local prosecutor, for questioning the family's motives. As local TV station WKYC reported, McGinty suggested that the Rice family had "economic motives" for pursuing justice, instead of genuine concerns that their 12-year-old's death should receive some form of justice. "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."

Earlier on, McGinty's office also released reviews of the case that sided with the cops, claiming the shooting was legally justified. But the family argued that the reports weren't valid, since the reviewers never interviewed the officers involved in the shooting.

To the Rice family and their supporters, the reports' release and McGinty's comments suggest that he's biased in favor of the police officers. So they want him to step down.

But more than the Rice case, the demand matches a broader policy proposal that Black Lives Matter protesters and other critics of police use of force have been calling on for the past year or so.

In the end, prosecutors have all the power

The demands of the Rice family and their supporters acknowledge a key fact in police shooting cases: In many states and counties, local prosecutors have all the power.

After more than a year since Rice was shot on November 22, 2014, there's been little progress in the case. While grand jury hearings are finally underway, it took far longer than other cases have. In comparison, the Eric Garner case in New York City took about five months to get a grand jury decision, the Michael Brown case in Ferguson, Missouri, took about three months, and the Freddie Gray case in Baltimore took just one month.

The Rice family is concerned that McGinty is purposely dragging his feet, potentially indicating some sort of bias in favor of police officers.

There's some reason to be wary of McGinty and prosecutors in general: They have a powerful incentive to be biased in favor of police officers. Prosecutors rely on police to get everyday work done, since cops gather evidence for cases, including the type of blockbuster trial that could catapult any prosecutor's career into the spotlight. So prosecutors are motivated to show leniency to the police, since going too hard on them could upset the entire department and make it much harder to work with cops during the next important case.

Critics of racial disparities in police use of force are cognizant of this potential conflict of interest, leading Black Lives Matter activists to call for independent prosecutors in cases involving police officers. So the demands of the Rice family and their supporters are in some ways part of a broader vision of how to change the criminal justice system to help hold police accountable.