The family of Tamir Rice — a 12-year-old boy who was shot dead by police two weeks ago in Cleveland while carrying a pellet gun — issued a call Monday for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office to bypass grand jury proceedings and decide on its own whether to file charges against the officers involved. However, state law could make it impossible for the prosecutor to sidestep a grand jury.
Rice’s death is one of several recent high-profile cases in which a white police officer has killed an African-American male. In the past month, grand juries have decided not to indict in two of those cases: First, a St. Louis County, Missouri grand jury opted not to indict the police officer who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown, and then a grand jury in New York City chose not to indict an officer over the death of Eric Garner. These cases, among others, have led some critics to argue that the grand jury process unfairly favors police officers accused of misconduct.
Rice family attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represented the Brown family in Missouri, alluded to those other cases during a press conference in Cleveland on Monday when he asked that prosecutors in the Rice case “make sure that this process is transparent, and not swept under the rug, as so many others are.”
“If there was enough probable cause that exists from the evidence that we know, then we don’t need another grand jury,” said Crump, who appeared alongside members of the Rice family.
Under Ohio law, it is not possible for the prosecutor to seek a felony indictment without the help of a grand jury, University of Toledo law professor Greg Gilchrist told Al Jazeera. However, the prosecutor can file charges against a suspect and then seek formal indictment afterward.
“It would be a formal pronouncement that the prosecutor’s office has found probable cause,” Gilchrist said. “It would put some pressure on the grand jury to determine an indictment.”
St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch has been criticized for not seeking specific charges against the officer who killed Brown.
When it comes to cases involving the use of deadly force by police officers, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s stated policy is to consult a grand jury before charging a suspect.
“At the conclusion of an investigation and Grand Jury presentation, the decision to charge or not charge ultimately rests with the Grand Jury,” according to the policy as described on the county prosecutor’s website.
The county prosecutor is unlikely to bend the policy for this particular case and seek charges before going to the grand jury.
"I don't see what the purpose would be," said Joe Frolick, a spokesperson for the prosecutor's office.
The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office has obtained grand jury indictments against police officers in at least one recent case. In May, a Cuyahoga County grand jury indicted a police officer for manslaughter because of his role in a 2012 car chase and shootout that left two unarmed people dead. The grand jury also indicted five of the shooter’s superior officers for dereliction of duty.
In addition to seeking criminal charges, the family of Tamir Rice has begun to pursue a civil case against the city of Cleveland and the two police officers involved in their son’s death. They filed a wrongful death lawsuit last week in federal court.
Members of the community in Cleveland are also seeking further political changes in the aftermath of Rice’s death. During Monday’s press conference, local pastor the Rev. Jawanza Colvin asked that the city’s Director of Public Safety Michael McGrath and Executive Assistant to the Mayor for Special Projects Martin Flask both be relieved of their duties. Mayor Frank Jackson should form an advisory committee to help appoint their replacements, Colvin said.
Citing a recent U.S. Department of Justice report finding systemic use of excessive force and substandard training at the Cleveland police department, Colvin said: “There is not the ability to implement the necessary reforms” under current leadership.