It’s been over a year since Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed 12-year old Tamir Rice, and now a Cuyahoga County grand jury has decided not to indict him for it, thus proving that grand juries will also let the ham sandwich walk, if that’s what the prosecutor wants.
Make no mistake, this whole process was a sham. Start with the fact that it took a year to get the case to the grand jury. Most homicide investigations are over in a few days, and even if the police needed to interview more witnesses and process more evidence, this case could still have been in front of a grand jury months ago.
Then there’s the unusually non-accusatory presentation to the grand jury. Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty says he recommended to the jury that they not charge Loehmann for the killing, which brings up the question of why he wasted so much time and effort presenting the case to the grand jury in the first place. My guess is that he didn’t want to charge Officer Loehmann, but he didn’t want to take all the heat for that decision, so he steered to grand jury to where he wanted it to go. Loehmann killed Tamir Rice, and the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office made sure he wasn’t charged for it.
Even though the process was fake, however, I’m not sure the end result was wrong. That Tamir Rice was killed is a tragedy, but it should take more than a tragedy to make a crime. There ought to be some element of intent. If Officer Loehmann had thought to himself “It’s just a kid with a pellet gun, but I’ll bet I can use that as an excuse so I can finally get to kill someone,” he would be a murderer. And proving intent doesn’t require mind reading, because a jury is allowed to draw inferences. They could decide, for example, that it was so obvious Tamir Rice was a kid with a toy that Loehmann’s shooting of him can only be explained as intentional murder.
Even if it’s not intentional murder, there could be lesser crimes that Loehmann might have been charged with. Depending on local law, he might be found to have behaved recklessly or negligently in failing to identify Tamir Rice as a child with a pellet gun. He might have jumped to unreasonable conclusions and shot too soon, and that could lead to some sort of criminal charge, much the way you could be charged for killing someone in a car accident if the accident was the result of your intentionally engaging in dangerous driving, even if you didn’t intend to hit anyone.
Or it may be that Officer Loehmann didn’t do anything that amounts to a crime. He might have made an honest mistake. There’s even an argument that he made the mistake because his partner, Officer Frank Garmback, drove up so close to Tamir Rice that Loehmann didn’t have time to properly assess the risk. It’s therefore arguable that Garmback bears more responsibility for Tamir Rice’s death than Loehmann. Garmback’s lawyer claims that he meant to stop further away but the car slid in the snow.
If that’s all true, it’s possible that the killing of Tamir Rice was the sad result of a chain of honest mistakes by good police officers that unfortunately lead to a terribly tragic death. (Obviously it would be convenient for the Cleveland police if it was.) But even if the death of Tamir Rice is not a crime, it’s still a tragedy. Regardless of what it may have looked like to Officer Loehmann, a 12-year-old child is dead for no good reason.
Those of us who keep a mistrustful eye on the police have a name for these kinds of tragedies. We call them isolated incidents. As in, “The death of Tamir Rice was an isolated incident that is not indicative of a larger problem in American policing.”
Unfortunately, there are a lot of isolated incidents: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Grey, Eric Harris, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Bettie Jones, and rather a lot of others that haven’t made the news. Everyone at that link is an unarmed black person who died in an incident involving the police. Some of the officers have been charged with crimes, some of the killings are probably justified, and many of the deaths appear to have been accidental, including TASER deaths and a number of black pedestrians struck by police cars.
Suppose you and I meet for drinks after work every Friday, and as part of our drinking tradition we flip a coin to decide who pays. After a while, you notice that I am consistently winning 4 out of 5 tosses. You might not be able to prove that my winning any single coin flip was more than an isolated incident, but the statistics make it very clear there’s a lot more going on than just bad luck.
Or suppose a member of your family checks into the hospital for minor surgery and ends up dying from an infection. Assuming there were no visitors, that infection had to come from a member of the hospital staff. All hospitals have problems with infection control, but suppose you investigated and learned that your hospital’s rate of deaths due to hospital-acquired infection is twice as high as other hospitals. The nurse or doctor who infected your family member presumably didn’t intend to kill them, and the hospital almost certainly doesn’t have a policy of deliberately infecting and killing patients, but the higher-than-normal rate of hospital-caused infection deaths still points to a serious problem.
Now suppose your hospital investigation revealed that black patients die from hospital-acquired infections at twice the rate of white people. That would be worth looking into, wouldn’t it? And if you ruled out other patient factors (genetics, environment, culture) then you’d pretty much have to assume that the hospital is more careless about infection control with black patients. Perhaps it’s unconscious bigotry, or resentment of patients who lack insurance. It could be that hospital administrators assign the better staff to take care of white patients. But whatever the cause, it ought to be stopped.
The Guardian‘s data on people killed by American police shows that in 2015 black people were killed by police at twice the rate for the rest of the population, and young black men were five times more likely to be killed by police than young white men of the same age. Some of that could be explained by the greater tendency of black people to commit crimes — they are being shot more by cops because they are more likely to present a threat — but I don’t think that would explain the higher rate of unarmed black people killed by police.
Once you’ve ruled out justified killings, you’ve shown that a problem exists. Identifying the cause might be harder. It could be that enough cops are straight-up KKK-style racists to cause the statistical difference. Or it could be that white cops just have a harder time identifying with young black men: They might see belligerent young white men as troubled kids who need straightening out while seeing equally belligerent young black men as hardened criminals that deserve no mercy. Or given the reports that Officer Loehmann had a poor record as a police officer, perhaps the problem is caused by something as banal as police commanders giving less thought to the quality of the officers they hire to to patrol black communities.
As I said at the top, I don’t know enough about the Tamir Rice shooting to know if officer Loehmann should be thrown in prison. (People who followed the case more closely than I may have reached more certain conclusions.) But I do know that when it comes to police officers killing black people without justification, throwing the officers in prison is not the primary goal. Throwing the officers in prison is at best a means to an end, and maybe even a necessary means, but the primary goal should always be to get cops to stop killing so many black people for no good reason.
Because that shit has got to stop.