CLEVELAND — Many in Cleveland’s African-American community are skeptical that the white police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice will ever stand trial, much less step into a cell. And many say their pessimism stems from the city’s history of tumultuous relations between police and citizens of color rather than from recent grand jury decisions not to indict white cops who killed black men.
Rice was playing in a Cleveland park with a nonlethal pellet gun when a police car pulled up. According to surveillance video, officer Timothy Loehmann fired his gun within seconds of exiting his car. Loehmann has said he believed Rice was armed with a real gun.
Rice’s killing took place amid national outrage over police shootings of and brutality against African-American men. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets over grand jury decisions not to indict officers in the cases of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a white police officer Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner, who died after being placed in a chokehold by a white cop on Staten Island in New York .
“It’s a farce. The system is designed to protect officers,” said Ron Wynne, a 20-year-old political science major at Cuyahoga Community College, who attended a community forum on the Rice shooting at the Martin Luther King Jr. branch of the Cleveland Public Library.
“If I had $3 million in my bank account, I would bet all of it that he won’t go to jail,” said Courtney Drain, 21, a snowboard instructor who also attended the forum.
In a city where 35 percent of residents live below the poverty level, Cleveland’s police force, which is 25 percent black and 65 percent white, has had a rocky history with the black community, which makes up 53 percent of the city’s population, according to census records.
Mario Pollard, 22, a Cuyahoga Community College student, said that he lives in Hough, where infamous race riots were sparked in 1966 when a bar owner put up a sign using a racial slur to indicate that he wouldn’t serve African-Americans and the police arrived to break up a crowd that gathered around the bar. There were 240 fires and 275 arrests, and four black people were killed.
More recently, on Nov. 29, 2012, 62 police vehicles chased two unarmed Cleveland residents, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, for more than 20 miles. It was later determined police believed they heard gunfire when the car backfired. After the chase ended, 13 officers fired 137 shots into the vehicle. Williams and Russell were each riddled with more than 20 bullets. The city paid Russell’s and Williams’ families $1.5 million each in a settlement.
“We see this regularly,” said James Hardiman, a civil rights attorney based in Cleveland and the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio. “The city of Cleveland pays out millions of dollars to residents in settlement cases. They shoot first and feel like they can ask questions later, and a lot of the community is caught in the crossfire.”
On Thursday, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Justice Department released a highly critical report on the Cleveland Police Department (CPD), blasting it for incidents such as firing at suspects without justifiable cause, beating suspects already in handcuffs and failing to write up accurate police reports.
The Cleveland Police Department declined a request for comment.
“We found that CDP officers too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution,” the report reads. “Supervisors tolerate this behavior and, in some cases, endorse it.”
In one incident, an officer punched a 13-year-old handcuffed boy in the face. In another, a suicidal deaf man who committed no crime, posed no risk to officers and may not have understood officers’ commands, was taken down with a stun gun.
In general, the report states, there is an “us against them” mentality in the Cleveland police culture.
Drain said he feels that. When he was 14, some of his friends began throwing ice balls at a pizza place. Not wanting to get into trouble, Drain and a white friend left. An officer stopped both boys. Drain was put in the police car while the officer questioned his white friend outside the car. Later, Drain’s mother, who is white — his father is black — verbally tore into the officer. Drain said the officer then backed down and he was allowed to go home.
Now if Drain is driving and he sees a police car pull up behind him, he gets panic attacks.
“The distrust comes from the way we as a people are policed,” Wynne said. “Everybody in the black community has a story about the police. We can’t trust the police because ultimately they don’t give us a reason to.”
Exactly how the police system should be fixed and better relate to residents of color isn’t easy to determine. At the community forum, residents raised many questions and issues but few had solutions.
“We met at 11 and ended close to 2 p.m. and still didn’t come to any conclusions,” Hardiman said. “People are so passionate about these issues and deeply concerned … and everyone as a group are trying to work through that process.”
Experts and community members said racial biases and stereotypes lead to a lot of the tragedies and general mistreatment of black people in Cleveland by police officers.
“These officers are so fearful of a young black male, they operate as if the use of deadly force is the first option,” said Ronnie Dunn, Ph.D., an associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University.
The media add to the problem, said Ed Little, a criminal and juvenile justice consultant based in Cleveland.
Little pointed out that after Rice was shot, a local media outlet did a story on Rice’s parents, reporting that his father allegedly has a history of domestic violence. The media have covered Loehmann’s history of reported incompetency as well, but Little said that calling attention to the parents’ negative aspects “gives the idea that they were very bad parents because their kid had a toy gun at a park and that in some way he deserved this and it’s their fault.”
When people blame shootings on rogue officers that, too, slows down the incentive for change, said Renee Romano, a professor of history, African studies and comparative American studies at Oberlin College. “Some people are trying to frame it as just a few bad cops, but that’s a way to contain the narrative to this one bad cop instead of our system of policing,” she said.
Drain said black males aren’t the only people being killed by police in Cleveland, pointing out the case of Tanisha Anderson, 37, a Cleveland resident who had schizophrenia. On Nov. 13, Anderson’s family called police for assistance in dealing with her; two hours later, she was dead. Accounts differ, but it has been alleged that after having trouble getting Anderson into a squad car, an officer slammed her to the pavement and kneed her in the back when she was on the ground.
The Justice Department report concluded that Cleveland police officers have used cruel and unnecessary force on people with mental illness.
Dunn is hopeful that the growing outrage over police brutality could prompt change. “I think we’re finding that we may really be reaching a tipping point where there’s a groundswell of not only African-Americans who aren’t willing to tolerate it but all Americans of good conscience and faith realize that justice isn’t equal in America. I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ve reached a point in time where we are going to see substantive change in regards to the way policing is conducted in this country, particularly in low-income communities,” he said.
Eva Green, 18, a cognitive science and history student at Cleveland’s Case Western Reserve University, said Rice’s death hit home for her because she grew up in his neighborhood.
“I know kids his age who grew up there, and we had BB guns. Literally, that could have been any of us. That could have been my younger brother, who is now 17,” she said.
Green said she was encouraged by the way the community has rallied since Rice’s death, but she has her doubts about whether Loehmann will be charged. “Any system exists to perpetuate itself,” she said. “I don’t have much faith the grand jury, without pressure, will indict.”
Wynne was quick to say, “We don’t want to see violence” even if Loehmann isn’t indicted. “I don’t think anyone ever does,” Pollard chimed in.
But Wynne added, “This city is a powder keg.”