The US Justice Department said on Tuesday it has closed its civil rights investigation into the fatal 2014 shooting by Cleveland police of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black youth, and that no federal criminal charges would be brought in the case. The announcement came five years after an Ohio grand jury cleared two Cleveland officers, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, of state charges of wrongdoing in the death of Rice, who was shot in a playground while holding a toy gun capable of shooting pellets.
The slaying occurred when Loehmann, then a rookie on the Cleveland force, rolled up to the park in a police cruiser with Garmback at the wheel, then sprung from the vehicle and fired his gun twice at the youth within seconds, killing the boy. Both men are white.
The incident was one of a flurry of high-profile killings of African-American people at the hands of US law enforcement in recent years that have fueled protests giving rise to the Black Lives Matter movement against racial injustice.
The two officers in the Rice case had been dispatched in response to a 911-emergency call reporting a suspect with a gun near a recreation center. But crucial information the caller gave dispatchers – namely that the person in question was a juvenile and that the supposed weapon might be a toy – was never relayed to Loehmann and his partner before they reached the scene.
As a result, “the officers believed they were responding to a playground where a grown man was brandishing a real gun at individuals, presumably children,” the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in its six-page statement.
Moreover, security camera video of the November 2014 episode was found to be too grainy and taken from too great a distance to conclusively detail circumstances of the shooting, the statement said.
In closing the case without bringing charges, the department said it lacked sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that either officer had willfully broken the law, as opposed to making a mistake or exercising poor judgment.
“Although Tamir Rice’s death is tragic … both the Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney’s Office concluded that this matter is not a prosecutable violation of the federal statutes,” the department said.
Although no criminal charges have been brought, the city agreed to pay $6 million to the boy’s family to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed in his death in April 2016.
Cuyahoga County prosecutors who previously investigated the killing have said Rice had either intended to hand over the toy weapon he was carrying – an Airsoft replica of a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun – or show officers it was not real, but that the two policemen had no way of knowing that.
The Airsoft normally comes with an orange tip on its barrel to distinguish it from an actual firearm, but the one Rice was holding at the time did not, prosecutors said.
The family’s attorney, Subodh Chandra, said Tamir’s mother is profoundly upset by news of Tuesday’s decision. “Justice for the family would be to prosecute the officers who killed their child,” Chandra said.
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