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Margot PattersonDecember 30, 2015
Tamir Rice (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Tamir Rice was an innocent child killed by Cleveland police. He was not threatening anyone when he was shot; he was playing in a park wearing a toy gun. For those who regard his death as a tragic accident, it was not an isolated one. According to a data base The Guardian newspaper began compiling this year of people killed at the hands of police, 1,126 persons were killed in 2015, 216 of whom were unarmed.

More than a thousand people dead because of lethal force used by law enforcement is an epidemic of violence. Comparing fatalities in this country with those in others, The Guardian found that the police in the United States kill more people in a few days than are killed in an entire year, or sometimes in decades, in other democratic, developed countries. According to Amnesty International, laws in all 50 states regarding the use of lethal force by law enforcement do not meet international human rights standards.

Fewer than a dozen states require police officers to give a verbal warning before shooting. In 12-year-old Tamir’s case, less than two seconds passed between the time police said they shouted at him to put down his pellet gun and the time he was shot. Witnesses at the scene said they heard no warning.

How do we go about changing a culture of violence among the police, one that has been allowed to flourish by the public’s willingness to turn a blind eye to it? Certainly not by declining to prosecute police officers for reckless, negligent or brutal behavior, yet prosecutions of police officers are rare and when they do occur the sentences meted out are light.

Not serving on the Cleveland grand jury, I can’t say that its decision not to indict the policeman who killed Tamir was wrong, but the message it seems to send, the one that will be received, is that the police are not accountable for the mistakes they make, even when they are fatal ones. Coming on top of the casual inhumanity shown to Tamir’s sister and mother at the time of the killing and the protracted year-long investigation of the circumstances of his death, the impression conveyed is that lethal, badly botched policing carries no consequences. Trigger-happy police officers who shoot first, ask questions later, will not have cause to think twice.

The pass law enforcement officers habitually get from the public is often justified in terms of the risks they run to ensure public security. They undoubtedly do face danger, but perhaps not as much as people assume. Data compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that policing does not rank among the 10 most dangerous occupations in the United States. The riskiest jobs, those with the highest fatalities, are held by loggers, roofers, fishing workers, airline pilots and flight engineers, trash collectors, mining machine operators, farmers, ranchers, electric line installers and repairers and construction workers. An individual is more likely to die in any one of those jobs than in the line of duty as a police officer.

The immense authority given law enforcement, the reluctance of the public to question it even in suspicious circumstances, the shielding of abusive officers by their colleagues and superiors and the inattention to complaints about police misconduct bring to mind the clerical sex abuse scandal within the church. Both situations involve a betrayal of public trust, with abuse directed against the most vulnerable and powerless. In the case of the police, it’s directed at black men in particular, with unarmed black men more than twice as likely to be killed by police as other Americans.

One can hope that the worst of the clerical sex abuse scandal is in the past, but the attention to police violence that began 16 months ago with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., is probably still in its infancy. The dimensions of the problem it highlighted are not even clear yet due to a lack of reliable data on how many people die at the hands of police, one reason The Guardian began its project The Counted in June. Even with the recent passage in Congress of the Death in Custody Reporting Act, there are large hurdles to accurate reporting, logistical obstacles that go beyond the task of eliciting data from 18,000 law enforcement agencies. In October the Department of Justice began a pilot project to collect data on police-involved deaths using similar methodology to The Guardian’s crowd-sourced investigative project. Already that project has discovered that the government has seriously under-reported the number of police-involved deaths in previous years.

Tamir Rice’s tragic death doesn’t fit a neat schema of police terrorism or brutality. Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty called it a “perfect storm of human error” but one that did not indicate criminal conduct by the police. Many will disagree, as do Tamir’s family. They have called for the Justice Department to review Mr. McGinty’s role in the grand jury, which they believe he manipulated. (He has acknowledged telling the jury he doubted the officers who killed Tamir could be convicted if they were put on trial.) They have also filed a wrongful death suit against the city of Cleveland and the two police officers involved, who they say acted “unreasonably, recklessly (and) negligently.”

Civil suits against the police that end with taxpayers footing the bill for police misconduct have been largely ineffective in spurring police reforms. But since the announcement of the grand jury decision on Monday, protests against it are reigniting conversation about the flaws in the grand jury system, particularly the dominant role played by the prosecutor. Protests and other forms of public pressure, along with media investigations like The Counted, may be the only way to bring some measure of justice to Tamir and other victims of police violence. Even if not easily prosecuted, the police can still be fired, as can prosecutors and politicians complicit in police misconduct. An outraged citizenry protesting excessive use of force by the police and demanding reform may be the best and only way to get it. Can those pressing for change keep it up?

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
alan macdonald
7 years 5 months ago
Another article that starts with a question it refuses to answer. I feel manipulated by this deception.
Chris Pramuk
7 years 5 months ago
Thank you, Margot Patterson, and thanks to America, for this intelligent analysis and appropriately forceful commentary. I would urge readers to view the links the author provides, especially to The Guardian's project "The Counted." Of course there will be blowback, but truth-telling around painful social divides is difficult work. The "casual inhumanity" of too many Americans - and not a few Christians it seems - is deeply discouraging, if not morally appalling. There needs to be much, much more of this kind of commentary in the Catholic press. I only wish the article had not ended, if implicitly, by seeming to give the reader a pass. Who precisely are "those pressing for change" who need to "keep it up" if not you and me, and by extension, our parish communities? Are we willing to march with strangers in the streets, host conversations around race in our parish meeting halls, or help organize initiatives for public policy change? What resources of prayer and faith can be brought to bear beautifully and joyfully in the difficult path of meeting and listening to others across the color line and pressing together for societal change? Pope Francis is asking us to build a "culture of encounter." I would love to see Ms. Patterson and America help us concretely imagine the next steps in our racially divided social and ecclesial context.
Joseph J Dunn
7 years 5 months ago
Ms. Patterson writes: "Not serving on the Cleveland grand jury, I can't say that it's decision not to indict the policeman who killed Tamir was wrong, but the message it seems to send, the one that will be received, is that the police are not accountable for the mistakes they make, even when they are fatal ones." Ms. Patterson summarizes the case against the policeman: "Tamir...was not threatening anyone when he was shot; he was playing in a park wearing a toy gun." Ms. Patterson may want to place herself, if not in the position of the grand jury, then in the position of the responding policeman. Please select which of the pistols in the linked picture is real, and which is a toy: http://abcnews.go.com/US/toy-gun-tamir-rice-holding-prosecutors/story?id=35982086. Also, the grand jury saw video, enhanced, of the shooting, which at least CNN reporters believe, supports the officer's version of events. http://www.cnn.com/videos/tv/2015/12/28/cleveland-mayor-tamir-rice-jury-decision-sot-lead.cnn/video/playlists/tamir-rice-shooting/
Chris Pramuk
7 years 5 months ago
According to the Ohio Supreme Court – Ohio, by the way, is an open carry state - the accused who used deadly force must show: (1) that he was not at fault in creating the situation; (2) that he had a bona fide belief that he was in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm, and that his only means of escape from such danger was the use of such force; and (3) he did not violate any duty to retreat to avoid the danger. In what sense can one reasonably conclude that the responding officers "did not violate any duty to retreat to avoid the danger"? What evidence suggests that they gave a moment's thought to their "duty to retreat"? To the contrary, their whole disposition, squad car blazing, was "attack." Every kid playing water-gun tag in every back yard in America understands the difference between rushing the opponent in full scale attack/escalation mode (while emotionally cathartic, rarely beneficial to your cause) versus a more strategic assessment of the playing field, the location/movements/intentions of the "enemy," etc. The surest way to elicit an aggressive "fight or flight" response from your opponent is to fly in guns blazing. Tamir had zero chance. The officers' actions, not Tamir's, created a lightning speed zero-sum situation in which retreat (for either party) was NEVER an option, much less meaningful communication or nonviolent resolution.
Joseph J Dunn
7 years 5 months ago
Chris, Thanks for your comment. I am not familiar with Ohio law. But I would not be surprised if there is/are also statutes that specifically cover a police officer's use of deadly force. Those statutes, at least in some states, do not impose the same duty to retreat. More to the point that you raise, I watched the grainy video that was released originally, and the enhanced video that I linked to. Both show an encounter that occurred within seconds of the police arrival--one analysis said two seconds. Also, the policeman who fired was within nine feet of Tamir when he fired. As the CNN commentator says after looking at the enhanced video, it plainly shows Tamir moving his hand toward his waist, where the gun (which looks quite real) was, and it shows the gun on the ground by him before any police got to him--meaning that Tamir had pulled the gun out of his waist. I imagine that the grand jurors asked themselves whether it was reasonable for the police officer to fire, seeing Tamir (whom the officer believed appeared to be 20 years old) reach to his waist and produce what appeared to be a real gun, at a distance of nine feet--did the officer reasonably believe, in those circumstances, that his own life was in imminent mortal danger. IF the officer had a legal duty to retreat, was that even a viable option in the circumstances that existed, as shown on the video, with a young man reaching into his waistband and producing a 'gun', at a distance of nine feet? One is not usually bound to do the impossible, or even the unreasonable. You and I can only look at the videos presented. The grand jurors, of course, would have examined more evidence,including the autopsy report, interviewed police and civilian witnesses, and the medical examiner, and probably viewed the videos many times. The statutes, and any applicable court precedents, would have been read to them by the DA or ADA on the case, and they would have had their own opportunity to read those and consider them in their deliberations, when no DA or court reporter or anyone else besides the grand jurors was in the room. Tamir's death is a tragedy. Quite correctly, the public, as well as his family, has a vital interest in getting to the truth of it. It is for these events that grand juries exist, composed of ordinary citizens. They have a duty to follow the law, as you clearly expect. I do have a concern with Ms. Patterson's interest in "what kind of message is sent, or received." That is not the job of the grand jury; it is more often the work of a mob. A juror would probably violate his/her oath by putting aside the law to "send a message". IF the federal investigation finds some misconduct in the DA's conduct with the grand jury then a new grand jury can be called. But for now, it seems best to respect the grand jury's work.

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