Courtesy of Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office

Officers ‘reckless’ in shooting of Tamir Rice, reports say

Experts hired by Rice family say 12-year-old's death at hands of Cleveland police ‘unjustified and entirely preventable’

The shooting of Tamir Rice by Cleveland police was “unreasonable, unjustified and entirely preventable,” according to analysis by a veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD). The 12-year-old Tamir, who was seen playing alone with a toy gun in a public park, was shot by officers responding to a 911 call on Nov. 22, 2014. He died from his wounds the following day. Another law enforcement veteran also recently concluded that responding officers “exhibited a callous disregard for the life of Tamir” because they failed to administer first aid after he was shot and in custody.

Both analyses, released over the weekend by attorneys representing the Rice family, concluded that the responding police officers —Timothy Loehmann, who fired at Tamir, and Frank Garmback, who was driving the squad car — acted in ways that led to a use of force that was neither reasonable nor necessary.

The analyses stand in stark contrast to three independent reports commissioned and released earlier this year by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty. Those reports concluded that officer Loehmann didn’t act unreasonably in shooting the 12-year-old. Legal representatives for the Rice family questioned the prosecutor’s release of the reports, saying McGinty’s actions indicated “an improper attempt to exonerate the officers,” according to Zoe Salzman, an attorney at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff and Abady, a New York law firm representing Tamir’s mother and sister.

In response, McGinty’s office invited the Rice family to submit analysis from their own experts, a move Salzman called “highly unusual [and] perhaps unprecedented.” The length of time that has passed and the release to the public of various opinions on the case — in contrast with the usually secretive grand jury process designed to secure indictments — has lead to calls from the Rice family and local community advocates for McGinty to step aside in favor of a special prosecutor.

In the analyses released by the Rice family, officers Loehmann and Garmback were found to have made numerous tactical errors and failed to follow police procedure throughout the incident.

The analyses prepared for the family noted that the 911 dispatcher had said the person of interest was sitting on a swing set at the Cudell Recreation Center on Cleveland’s West Side. Surveillance video shows the arriving officers driving past empty swings and stopping within a few feet of Tamir, who had walked to a nearby gazebo. But standard procedure dictated the officers should have stopped a safe distance from the scene to assess who the suspect was and where he might be. 

"Reasonable police officers responding to a man-with-a-gun call would have stopped their vehicle prior to entering the park to visually survey the area to avoid driving upon a subject who may be armed," wrote Jeffrey Noble, a police tactics consultant and 28-year veteran of the Irvine, California, police department. Noble said this is to protect officers and anyone else in the vicinity.

Both Noble and Roger Clark, the police procedures consultant who spent over two decades with the LASD, observed that the officers had no way of knowing if Tamir was the same person the dispatcher mentioned, since no gun was visible at any time during the less-than-two-seconds between the officers’ arrival and Loehmann’s shooting of Tamir. Both experts said surveillance video shows Tamir had nothing in his hands when the police arrived.

The analyses also describe a situation with little chance for the officers to warn Rice before Loehmann fired. The police car windows were closed, and Loehmann shot Rice within 1.7 seconds of arriving. The video shows Loehmann leaving the car with his gun in hand, meaning he had removed it from his holster while inside the vehicle.

The experts hired by the family cited a 2008 federal appeals court decision, Kirby v. Duva, which states, “Where a police officer unreasonably places himself in harm’s way, his use of deadly force may be deemed excessive.” In light of that, both reports found Loehmann and Garmback had created a “dangerous situation.”

Noble and Clark also faulted the Cleveland Division of Police (CDP) for hiring Loehmann, noting his well-documented difficulties at a smaller, suburban police department.

“No reasonable chief of police would have hired Officer Loehmann,” Noble wrote, adding that within the previous year Loehmann had lied to his supervisor, suffered from emotional issues and failed at basic tasks, including proper use of a firearm.

Clark went further, writing that Tamir’s death should be evaluated in the context of numerous complaints against the Cleveland police. CDP “has a long, documented history of systemic excessive use of force generally and unjustified shootings particularly,” he wrote. He said the U.S. Department of Justice has repeatedly cited the CDP for a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary force.”

“The Cleveland Division of Police has a long and troubling history of excessive force and unjustified shootings,” attorney Salzmanm wrote in an email to Al Jazeera. “This history set the stage for the tragic death of Tamir Rice.”

On Saturday night Prosecutor McGinty released a frame-by-frame analysis of enhanced surveillance video from the park where Rice was shot (PDF), including text that attempts to identify Tamir, his toy gun and the positions of his hands.

At first glance, the text appears to align with previous independent reports released by the prosecutor’s office. But Rice family attorneys were quick to take issue.

“Despite the highly misleading notations on the enhanced video,” wrote Salzman, “it actually confirms what the original video showed — these officers recklessly sped through the park, pulled up right next to Tamir, who was by himself in the gazebo and not a threat to anybody, and shot him within less than two seconds.” Salzman told Al Jazeera that the enhanced video makes clear that Rice didn’t reach into his waistband before the police shooting, and that his movements after the arrival of the police car are consistent with a reaction to being shot.

“The frames contain editorial comments that attempt to make excuses for the officers,” wrote Subodh Chandra, another Rice family attorney, in a statement. He called the video one of many reasons “the Rice family and clergy throughout Cleveland lack confidence in the prosecutor's fairness in this matter.”

Tamir’s shooting has come as communities across the United States take a closer look at African-Americans’ deaths during encounters with police. In Ferguson, Missouri, where 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot and killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in August of 2014, a grand jury heard evidence and in November that year issued a decision not to indict Wilson.

In April this year, a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray died from injuries suffered in the back of a Baltimore police van. The officers implicated in Gray’s death were charged in May, and jury selection in the first of their trials began Monday.

Also on Monday, a judge set bail at $1.5 million for Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, charged with first degree murder in the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old African-American. McDonald died after being Van Dyke shot him 16 times in October of 2014, but the officer was only indicted this November when a police dash-cam video of the shooting was made public through a journalist’s Freedom of Information request.

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