CLEVELAND – A grand jury on Monday declined to indict a white rookie police officer in the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black boy who was shot while playing with what turned out to be a pellet gun.
In explaining the decision, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said it was “indisputable” that the boy was drawing the pistol from his waistband when he was gunned down. McGinty said Tamir was trying to either hand the weapon over to police or show them it wasn’t real, but the officer and his partner had no way of knowing that.
“Simply put, given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police,” McGinty said.
He said patrolman Timothy Loehmann was justified in opening fire: “He had reason to fear for his life.”
Tamir’s family condemned the decision but echoed the prosecutor in urging those who are disappointed to express themselves “peacefully and democratically.” Barricades were set up outside the county courthouse in Cleveland in case of protests, and about two dozen people gathered in the cold rain at the recreation center where Tamir was shot, some holding signs with photos of the boy and others killed by police in the U.S.
A grainy surveillance camera video of the November 2014 shooting provoked outrage nationally, and together with other killings of black people by police in places such as Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City, it helped fuel the Black Lives Matter movement.
There was no immediate comment from Loehmann after the decision. An attorney for Loehmann’s partner, patrolman Frank Garmback, called the shooting a “tragic incident” but said it’s clear the officers “acted within the bounds of the law.” The grand jury also declined to indict Garmback.
Tamir was shot by Loehmann within two seconds of the officers’ police cruiser skidding to a stop near the boy. Loehmann and Garmback were responding to a 911 call about a “guy” pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people. Tamir was carrying a borrowed airsoft gun that looks like an actual firearm but shoots nonlethal plastic pellets. It was missing the orange tip that is supposed to show that it’s not a real weapon.
The grand jury had been hearing evidence and testimony since mid-October.
In detailing the decision not to bring charges, McGinty said police radio personnel contributed to the tragedy by failing to pass along the “all-important fact” that the 911 caller said the gunman was probably a juvenile and the gun probably wasn’t real.
Assistant prosecutor Matthew Meyer said it was “extremely difficult” to tell the difference between the pellet gun and the firearm it’s modeled after. And he said Tamir was big for his age – 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds – and appeared much older than 12.
McGinty also noted that the neighborhood has a history of violence and that a short distance away are memorials to two Cleveland police officers fatally shot in the line of duty. McGinty said the city has taken steps to prevent this kind of shooting from happening again.
The Cleveland police department plans to put dashboard cameras in every patrol car. Officers who work the streets have been equipped with bodycams since September. The city also reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice this year to institute numerous reforms, including an overhaul of the police department’s use-of-force policies. The settlement was prompted in part by a November 2012 high-speed car chase that ended with the killing of a couple in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.
In a statement, Tamir’s family said it was “saddened and disappointed by this outcome – but not surprised.” It accused the prosecutor of “abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment.”
Among other things, the family charged that McGinty improperly hired use-of-force experts to tell the grand jury that Loehmann’s actions were reasonable.
The family renewed its request for the Department of Justice to step in and conduct “a real investigation.” Federal prosecutors in Cleveland noted Monday that a civil rights investigation into the shooting is already underway.
Also, Mayor Frank Jackson said the city and the police department will conduct an internal review that could result in disciplinary action against the two officers, who were removed from street duty and have been on restricted duty since the shooting.
Tamir’s family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the two officers and the city.
McGinty said it was a “tough conversation” with Tamir’s mother when she was told there would be no charges.
“She was broken up, and it was very hard,” the prosecutor said.
Loehmann opened fire from a distance estimated at 4 1/2 to 7 feet, getting off two shots, one of which missed.
“With his hands pulling the gun out and his elbow coming up, I knew it was a gun and it was coming out,” Loehmann said in a statement he read to the grand jury. “I saw the weapon in his hands coming out of his waistband, and the threat to my partner and myself was real and active.”
After the boy’s killing, it was learned that Loehmann had washed out from the police force in suburban Independence. Loehmann had a “dismal” handgun performance, broke down in tears at the gun range and was emotionally immature, according to documents. He quit that department before he could be fired.
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