When a grand jury last week failed to pass down an indictment on Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland police officer who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in public park last winter, they did so under the influence of three reports declaring the shooting “objectively reasonable.” In other words, in light of the circumstances the officers thought they were facing, it was reasonable for them to shoot Rice after rolling up and assessing the situation for less than a second. Just, as Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty said, a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes, and miscommunications.”
The reports, commissioned by McGinty and based entirely on the case file provided by him, dismissed the officers’ approach — roll onto the scene and come out shooting — as a matter of “tactics” and concluded that, regardless of through what ignorance the notoriously twitchy rookie found himself face to face with a 12-year-old with empty hands, the fact that he thought he saw Rice reach for a gun made it reasonable for Loehmann to fear for his life and fire away.
I don’t want to perpetuate any idea that we should mourn Tamir Rice simply because he was the right kind of victim — he didn’t have an arrest record, he didn’t have tough-looking pictures on Facebook that the media could flash all over TV and the Internet to say “this thug probably had it coming” without coming out and saying it. The killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray were no less horrific whether or not the men were “angels,” as has come up over and over again. But Rice’s case stands out because of the striking difference between the victim (a large-for-his-age 12-year-old with an airsoft gun) and the image that Loehmann had built for himself in his head when he pulled the trigger (a 20-year-old about to pull a gun and shoot Loehmann if Loehmann didn’t shoot first).
At the risk of throwing down some pure speculation: My 13-year-old nephew, being 13, is just at the age and inanity to wander around a public park with an airsoft pistol, and I’m confident that if he did so — blond, curly-haired, pink-cheeked as he is — police reaction would almost certainly come in the form of, “Now, son, you don’t need to be carrying that around. You’re going to hurt yourself.” That’s because, even for being tall and sturdily built, he wouldn’t be perceived as a threat. We have a walking cherub who appears to be holding a gun would be, at best, cause for further investigation, because a kid like that wouldn’t have a real gun, right? We wouldn’t want to make any rash conjectures that could get someone hurt.
And that’s the difference between the Boychild and Tamir Rice. Rice didn’t even have to have tough-looking pictures or a police record, or even to have his hands out of his pockets, because Loehmann was going to see him as a threat regardless. His brain was primed to look at a 12-year-old black boy and see a threat to life and public safety who had to be put down before he could turn his latent killing powers on them. It didn’t matter who Rice was — he could have been a 6’3″ man or a 15-year-old girl at a pool party — surely only Loehmann’s well-honed shoot-first instinct saved them from being a statistic. What the Boychild would have been holding, Rice was brandishing; when a little blond boy would have gotten the benefit of the doubt, a black kid in a camo hat got a bullet. And because the only really necessary standard for a justifiable shooting, the grand jury is told, is that the officer felt threatened, that’s all it takes for Tamir Rice’s killing to be deemed “reasonable.” When, in his statement following the grand jury verdict, McGinty said that he couldn’t “help but feel that the victim here could have been [his] own son or grandson,” one would hope he knows better than to really believe that — unless his grandson is a tall-for-his-age black tween terrifying enough to shoot on sight.
It took the police 0.792 seconds to decide that this armed, menacing sixth-grader had to go down. It didn’t take much longer than that for them to come up with lies to justify it — that he was sitting with a crowd of people before he confronted them, that he drew his airsoft gun, that they told him to put the gun down several times before they fired — which they had plenty of time to do while they left him dying on the ground. And that they could later read to a grand jury without threat of cross-examination.
The fact is, there was a person at the scene that day who was a menacing, out-of-control threat to life. It wasn’t Tamir Rice. People act like black men and women are out of line for looking at a law enforcement officer as a natural predator, but put that in scale with cops who see a 12-year-old boy as a murder yet to happen — and a prosecutor’s office that finds that objectively reasonable.