Michael Brown was (plausibly) lunging for an officer’s weapon when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed him. Eric Garner didn’t pose much of a threat, but he was resisting arrest, and the tactics used to subdue him wouldn’t have been life-threatening but for a particular medical condition. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was just playing with a toy pistol in a Cleveland public park when the police gunned him down in broad daylight.
No charges will be brought against the officers involved.
This is a disturbing case. It cannot reasonably be dismissed as a trumped-up grievance-fest, or even just a tragedy of errors. Rice died as a consequence of a serious police error, in a county with a history of overaggressive, undisciplined policing.
Human Resources Screwed Up
Ironically, Officer Timothy Loehmann’s salvation may have been the sheer volume of screw-ups that contributed to Rice’s death. In explaining why Loehmann was exonerated, Prosecutor Tim McGinty described the situation as “a perfect storm of human error.” Quite a number of people do seem to have demonstrated shocking incompetence here. Let’s do a run-down.
We can start with the person who hired Loehmann to work for the Cleveland police. Loehmann had left his previous job with a suburban police department in what appeared to be a “quit or be fired” situation. He had mental health and maturity issues, and his deputy chief expressed the opinion that neither time nor training could make him a capable cop. His biggest problem? His emotional issues made him unreliable with a firearm. He became “distracted” and “weepy” even during a training session.
After losing his first job, he applied unsuccessfully to multiple other departments and finally got hired in Cuyahoga County. Within a few months on the job, he’d killed a preteen armed with a toy.
So Did The Dispatcher
Next we could look to the dispatcher, Beth Mandl, who informed Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback that an armed man in a public park was frightening local residents. The person who called in this tip had told the dispatcher the suspect looked like a juvenile, and that the gun was likely a fake.
Doesn’t that sound like the sort of information the responding officers should have? Apparently Mandl didn’t think so.
Mandl’s background should also have raised concerns, given that she had been fired from her last dispatcher job in 2008. Last summer she quit her job with the Cleveland police, though only after failing to come to work for three months, without explanation.
So Did the Partner
It’s heartbreaking to think this tragedy might have been averted if the officers had been fully informed. Still, given that they thought they were dealing with an armed adult, wouldn’t you expect the officers in charge to exercise some caution in approaching the situation?
Footage from the scene shows that Rice was alone in the park. If bystanders were indeed alarmed by his actions, they had evidently had the good sense to get some distance. The police weren’t so prudent. Garmback drove directly up to Rice and, seeing hands somewhere around his mid-section, Loehmann emerged from the squad car firing. Less than two seconds after the officers’ arrival, the twelve-year-old was on the ground.
Loehmann now claims he warned Rice three times to show his hands. No witnesses heard this. More importantly, watch the video for yourself. (Start at the one-minute mark, and it’ll take you ten seconds, literally!) Decide whether that claim is plausible. Could Loehmann possibly have had time to issue such a command, let alone three?
Did I Mention Cleveland Has a History of Police Aggression?
When reading about high-profile cases like this, you may find yourself wondering: are we making too much of the occasional mistake? Was this mostly a freak incident?
Usually the answer is “no.” Of course we should all appreciate that policing is dangerous, and that we can’t expect people to have perfect judgment in their split-second decisions. But the evidence suggests that the culture of a justice system makes a huge difference in officers’ behavior. Incidents like this arise far more frequently in regions with a history of police brutality and prosecutorial abuse. Cleveland definitely qualifies.
As it happens, Rice’s shooting in November 2014 preceded by mere days the release of a Department of Justice report on the Cleveland police. The report details a litany of problems, among them unexplained (and unconstitutional) stops and searches, and punitive physical aggression against suspects who were already handcuffed or otherwise restrained.
The DOJ observed that the Cleveland police seemed to have adopted a militaristic “us against them” mentality with respect to the local population, even noting little details, such as a public sign at a local station designating it the “forward operating base.” They noted, as well, that officers seemed to be poorly trained in the use of their weapons, often firing them “in a manner and in circumstances that place innocent bystanders in danger,” and using “dangerous and poor tactics to try to gain control of suspects.”
In what is possibly the most shocking detail in the report, Justice found that Cleveland Internal Affairs does almost nothing to respond to use-of-force complaints. The report states, “A member of the Office of Professional Standards, which, among other duties, has been charged with investigating use of deadly force incidents, stated that the office has not reviewed a deadly force incident since 2012.”
When controversial cases arise, prosecutors rightly point out that police behavior can be inappropriate without being criminal. It isn’t their job (they might suggest) to ensure that the police are doing their jobs well.
Evidence suggests, however, that prosecutorial laxity and over-aggressive police forces tend to go together. We already know that Cleveland’s Internal Affairs office isn’t bothering much about police aggression. If prosecutors are likewise looking for ways to go easy on the police, “freak tragedies” like the death of Tamir Rice are foreseeable, not freakish.
One more detail of the DOJ’s report may be of interest. It said (to paraphrase), “Hey, didn’t we issue a report like this ten years ago? Have you done anything to address all these problems that we documented back in 2004? It doesn’t seem like it.” Interesting.
Who Should Go Down For This?
What actually happened on that fateful day in November? As usual, there are a mess of conflicting claims on the table about the incident itself. Multiple reports commissioned by the prosecutor’s office assert the shooting was reasonable. The ones commissioned by Rice’s family attorneys say it wasn’t. McGinty claims Rice was drawing his toy weapon when Loehmann fired. Another report says Rice’s hands were in his pockets and that he couldn’t have had time to draw.
Three cheers for the experts, eh? But we shouldn’t let officials hide in these ambiguities. A boy is dead, owing to massive incompetence on the part of law enforcement. And if, as McGinty has suggested, this behavior is within the bounds of the law, that would seem to imply that the police can legally shoot anyone at all, provided they can piece together a remotely plausible case that they felt threatened.
Apparently this holds even when it was unnecessary for the officers to put themselves at such close range in the first place, or if the suspect was just a seventh-grader with hands moving somewhere around his midsection.
Concerned citizens are right to be upset that this incident has resulted in no charges of any kind, against anyone. No reasonable person suggests this is first-degree murder, but is it right to dismiss even much lesser charges, such as involuntary manslaughter, or dereliction of duty? McGinty isn’t even willing to bring an indictment for one of those charges? How can we expect real police reform when prosecutors are willing to send such a clear message that, however egregious the error, no one will ever be punished?
Loehmann isn’t the only guilty party, however. There’s lots of blame to go around, which is why we should be hearing phrases like “take responsibility,” not “perfect storm of human error.” Cleveland’s justice system has real problems, and now the whole world knows it. Let’s not be satisfied until we see real movement towards reform.