CLEVELAND, Ohio — Against the backdrop of the tension brewing in Ferguson, Missouri, 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s name was added to the roll of young black males whose deaths have garnered worldwide attention.
He joins Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, John Crawford III and others whose names are now part of a divisive global conversation about civil rights, the way we police our streets and how law enforcement treats people of color.
“What matters to me is this happened to a 12-year-old boy, and it happened in Cleveland,” Mayor Frank Jackson said at a press conference Monday morning packed with media outlets from around the world, and with police Chief Calvin Williams and Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty in attendance.
The shooting resulted in headlines from around the world, scrutiny from an attorney for the boy’s family, the ire of politicians and the wrath of Internet “hacktivists.”
It all leads back to 3:30 p.m. Saturday, when two Cleveland police officers were called to a park near the Cudell Recreation Center at 601 Lakeside Avenue for a report of a “man” pointing a gun at people in the park.
Police saw Tamir take what they believed was a pistol from a picnic table under a gazebo where he was sitting with a group and stuff the weapon in his waistband.
A first-year officer, who officials have not named, got out of his car and told the boy to raise his hands. Instead, police said he reached for what later proved to be an airsoft-type gun, a replica of a semi-automatic handgun that shoots pellets.
The officer fired two shots from less than 10 feet away. A least one of the bullets hit Tamir in the stomach. He was rushed to MetroHelath Medical Center in serious condition and died early Sunday.
Questions about the shooting arose when police revealed that the man who called 9-1-1 before the boy was shot told dispatchers “the gun was probably fake.”
The caller told the dispatcher he saw “a guy with a pistol” on the swing set pulling a weapon from his pants and “scaring the s—t out of everyone.”
Information provided at a press conference Monday began to draw a clearer picture of the murky events that led to Tamir’s death. An investigation into the shooting by the police department’s Use of Deadly Force Investigation Team could take up to three months.
Police said they briefly interviewed the officer who fired the fatal shots, but haven’t taken a formal statement from him. The officers were placed on a three-day administrative leave, after which they’ll return on restrictive duty, police said. Police have not released the names of the two officers involved in Tamir’s shooting.
While surveillance video from the shooting is public record, police said they don’t plan to release it anytime soon out of respect for Tamir’s family. The Cleveland chief said he offered to let the boy’s family see the footage, but they declined, sending representatives in their place.
An attorney for the boy’s family will undertake his own investigation to find out what happened in the park, including why the officer didn’t use a stun gun when he was less than 10 feet from Tamir.
“The family is devastated,” attorney Timothy Kucharski said. “I would go as far to say inconsolable. [His mother] woke up yesterday with a son. Today, she woke up without a son.”
Kucharski said the family will decide whether to file a civil lawsuit against the Cleveland police department once his investigation is finished.
Scrutiny into Cleveland police has revealed that training for Ohio police officers that specifically addresses dealing with children is minimal. Ohio law does not require any juvenile justice training.
Only six of the 582 required police academy hours are dedicated to youth crime training, according to Strategies for Youth, an organization that trains police how to interact with young people.
The organization’s founder Lisa Thurau said the training Ohio police receive to deal with youth is “absolutely inadequate,” but average compared to other states.
Politicians call for action
The shooting has caught the attention of Congressional Black Caucus Chair U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Warrensville Heights Democrat. Fudge offered her condolences to Tamir’s family and called for police reform Monday.
“The City of Cleveland must ensure a thorough and transparent investigation of this tragic shooting,” she said. “With the long awaited report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) into the use of deadly force, racial discrimination and police pursuits by the Cleveland Division of Police expected soon, I urge DOJ to review this incident and continue monitoring the Police Department.”
The Justice Department launched an investigation in March 2013 into the use of force practices of Cleveland police. The federal investigation could result in federally binding reforms in almost every level of the department.
Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed said some of the uncertainty in Tamir’s shooting could have been avoided if the Jackson administration hadn’t delayed equipping Cleveland police officers with body cameras. Council approved $1.6 million for the cameras in October, and officers themselves have supported the idea, but Reed said Jackson is biding his time and consequently making criminal investigations more difficult.
State Rep. Alicia Reece announced Sunday that she will introduce legislation that would place restrictions on BB guns, air rifles and airsoft guns, requiring them to be brightly colored or have prominent fluorescent strips.
Reactions from experts, the Internet
Tamir was a sixth grade student at Marion C. Seltzer Elementary School in Cleveland, which is a K-8 school and right next to the Cudell Rec Center where the teen was shot.
Experts in child psychology have offered advice for parents and teachers on how to discuss the circumstances of Tamir’s death with children. Dan Flannery, a clinical psychologist at Case Western Reserve University, said Tamir’s friends will probably struggle with wrapping their heads around the finality of his death.
Flannery said the idea of toy guns itself poses a psychological issue among children.
“This is why we talk about not carrying around real-looking (replica) guns to begin with,” Flannery said. “That’s the conversation I’m going to be having with my 12-year-old daughter.”
Twitter users made the hashtag #TamirRice trending in the United States, with some users calling out racism among police and others defending the officer’s right to protect himself from what he believed was a real gun.
The “hacktivist” group Anonymous attacked the city of Cleveland’s website, shutting the site down Monday. As of 4 p.m., the site remained down. The FBI is investigating.
Anonymous posted a video message on YouTube taking credit for the takedown and accusing the “untrained rookie officer” of shooting Tamir “in cold blood.”
Tamir and the others
Many on social media are drawing comparisons between the Cudell shooting and the August officer-involved shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. But at a press conference Monday, Jackson said Ferguson wasn’t a factor.
Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot to death Feb. 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman. Zimmerman thought Martin seemed suspicious and said the two scuffled before Martin was shot. The teenager was only holding a bag of Skittles. Zimmerman was cleared of criminal charges.
John Crawford III, 22, was shot Aug. 8 inside a Walmart near Dayton after a customer called 9-1-1 and said a man was carrying a gun through the store. Officers shot Crawford who was carrying an air rifle he took off a store shelf. A grand jury chose not to indict the officers involved in the shooting.
Despite dismissing Ferguson’s potential to create upheaval in Cleveland’s streets, Jackson said Monday that the city has a contingency plan for potential protests – one that will respect people’s First Amendment rights.
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Staff from Northeast Ohio Media Group contributed to this story.