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The Killing of Tamir Rice: Cleveland Police Criticized for Shooting 12-Year-Old Holding Toy Gun

StoryDecember 05, 2014
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More than 100 people packed a church in Cleveland, Ohio, for the memorial service of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy shot dead by police last month. Rice, who was in sixth grade, was killed after a 911 caller reported seeing the boy with what turned out to be a pellet gun, which the caller repeatedly said seemed fake. Video shows Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann fatally shooting Rice immediately after leaving his cruiser, from a distance of about 10 feet. On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department has found a pattern or practice of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force” by the Cleveland Police Department. We speak with Democratic Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, whose district includes Cleveland.

We are also joined by three others in our studio: Graham Weatherspoon is a retired detective with the New York City Police Department; Mychal Denzel Smith is a contributing writer for The Nation; and Harry Siegel is a columnist at the New York Daily News.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: More than a hundred people packed a church in Cleveland, Ohio, on Wednesday for the memorial service of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy shot dead by police last month. Rice, who was in sixth grade, was killed after a 911 caller reported seeing the boy with what turned out to be a pellet gun, which the caller repeatedly said seemed fake. Video shows Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann fatally shooting Rice immediately after leaving his cruiser, from a distance of about 10 feet.

AMY GOODMAN: Now reports have emerged that the officer responsible for Tamir Rice’s death, Officer Loehmann, was deemed unfit for police service two years ago when he worked in the suburb of Independence, Ohio. A letter from a superior specifically criticizes Loehmann’s performance in firearms training, saying, quote, “He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts or recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal,” the letter said.

A day after the funeral, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department has found a pattern or practice of unreasonable and unnecessary use of force by the Cleveland Police Department. He stressed that changes are needed to improve community trust in policing.

ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: We have determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Public—Police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force, and as a result of systemic deficiencies, including insufficient accountability, inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and inadequate engagement in the community. Now, fortunately, today I can announce that the Department of Justice and the city of Cleveland have come together—have come together—to set in motion a process that will remedy these issues in a comprehensive and in a court-enforceable manner.

AMY GOODMAN: For more now, we go to Ohio, where we’re joined by Democratic Ohio state Senator Nina Turner, whose district includes Cleveland.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, state Senator Turner. Can—

SEN. NINA TURNER: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Your family is police. You’re a—can you talk about your relationship with the Tamir Rice case and how this happened, when even the caller to 911 said this kid has a toy gun that he believed was fake? Within seconds of the police coming up in their cruiser—seconds—they shot him dead.

SEN. NINA TURNER: Yeah, they did, Amy, and this is beyond what we can put into words. And so, certainly, our hearts go out to Tamir’s family. This is gut-wrenching that like something like that would happen. And you’re absolutely right: Less than two seconds from when the police arrived on the scene, a young Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy—not a black male, not a young man, a little boy—was shot and killed. He really did not have a chance. This is tragic any way that you cut it. And all of America’s heart should cry out for reforms that we need to make sure that our communities are protected and served. And those are not contradictory. We we can have both/and. And we’ve got to get back to doing that.

You’re absolutely right, Amy, I’m a native of Cleveland, born and raised there. You know, I have an African-American son. I have an African-American husband. I have an African-American brother, African-American father. You know, every black male in my family has been racially profiled at some point in time. Now, this has been—and I point that out to say, not necessarily in this case, in terms of racial profiling, but the larger picture that I heard some of your guests talk about, which is, what is it about saying “black male” that causes a frenzy, where people decide they will shoot first and ask questions later?

I heard one of your guests talk about humanity. And that is really what we have to get back to. More than being a public servant, as a mother, my heart aches. I can tell you that my husband and I both gave our sons lessons, and I’m glad to hear Mayor de Blasio courageously talk about what him and his wife had to do for their son. My husband and I did the same thing for our son, as well. And the irony of that is that my son is currently a police officer, so I do understand how hard the job is. But we can have both.

And we need to have a very deep conversation that moves us to action in this country about how African-American males and Latino males, people of color, are seen in this country. This is bigger than the police department. This is in the DNA of America. This is a centuries-old problem, that African Americans, and particularly African-American males, are seen as more criminal. Nowhere in America should a 12-year-old boy be gunned down in the way that he was.

Now, I will say in terms of that 911 call, though, the dispatcher, it appears, in terms of listening to the tape, the dispatcher that took the call from the 911 caller who did say, “This may be a toy gun, this is possibly a juvenile,” that same message, however, was not given over to the police. Now that does not justify the tactics that they used, but I want to make that clear, that the police officers did not get that message that it may be a juvenile and it may be a toy gun. And that is unfortunate. And we’ve got to do a better job in terms of training and making sure that police have all the information that they need. But let us not forget that Ohio is an open-carry state. So, again, what the police officers did on that scene that day in terms of young Tamir Rice is totally unacceptable, no matter how you cut it.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Senator Turner, your reaction to the announcement by Attorney General Holder of the Justice Department’s investigation there? What has been the situation with the Cleveland Police Department, from your perspective, over the past few years?

SEN. NINA TURNER: Well, Juan, I’m glad to hear—I agree with what the attorney general said. I want to remind that Mayor Jackson did ask for them to come in and do an investigation. You all may recall what happened to Timothy Russell and [Malissa] Williams. They were shot, 137 shots into their car. They had no weapon, and nor were they charging the police with that car. They were gunned down in that way. That caused a stir, rightfully so. Again, in America, nothing like that should ever happen.

The attorney general hit it just right, that there needs to be a change in the city of Cleveland in the way that police operations are happening. And I’m glad to hear the word “partnership,” because we have to have the courage to confront and the courage to be confronted. And just because we are talking about these instances—because it burns me when people want to say that just because we’re bringing to light the things that need to be changed, that we are somehow anti-police. Nothing can be further from the truth. Most police officers do a great job, and the Department of Justice identified that in their report. But there is a “however” to that. And in instances where things are not going right, where there may be a culture that is there within some of these departments that are not there to protect and serve, we have a moral obligation to address that.

The city of Cleveland, the residents of Cleveland, are calling for systemic change, and we need that. And I’m glad to see that our city will be doing just that. And I look forward to lending my support any way that I can, because that is my home. I grew up and I was raised there. I love the city of Cleveland. The citizens of that city love the city of Cleveland.

AMY GOODMAN: And just back on the killing—

SEN. NINA TURNER: And we deserve—

AMY GOODMAN: Just back on the killing of Tamir, in addition to the problems with Officer Loehmann, who killed him within two seconds of getting out of his car—


AMY GOODMAN: —the cop who was driving the car, Frank Garmback, the officer who was driving the police cruiser when Tamir was killed, also has a troubled history. Cleveland reportedly paid out $100,000 earlier this year to a city resident named Tamela Eaton to settle an excessive-force lawsuit brought against Officer Garmback. The settlement stemmed from a 2010 confrontation in which Eaton said Garmback, quote, “rushed [her] and placed her in a chokehold, tackled her to the ground, twisted her wrist and began hitting her body.”

As we’re wrapping up, Juan, as we come back to New York.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Harry, in terms of this whole issue, I know the Daily News editorial board has been writing numerous editorials about the Garner situation. Your sense of the possibility of a federal intervention in terms of changing the grand jury process in police killings?

HARRY SIEGEL: I’m skeptical. I think it’s very hard to do. This comes down to state law. I would note that Governor Andrew Cuomo, who’s now mumbling about all sorts of reforms, had the opportunity to appoint a special prosecutor here. And in fact, his father, Governor Mario Cuomo, when the Howard Beach thing happened, used a special prosecutor to deal with that. And he was actually under pressure to have a special prosecutor for racial criminal cases more generally, which he didn’t do. But Andrew here, who’s now outraged by where we’re at, allowed us to get to this point.

What’s so important about these demonstrations right now, and how diverse they’ve been, racially, by age—I mean, there’s just a lot of different people out—is it’s a real popular signal to these politicians that there’s a demand for a better system, and if these sorts of outrages keep happening, that there will be a real political price to be paid. But I think this sort of change—and it’s above the police commissioner’s pay grade—has to happen at the local level, and it has to demand real political pressure for just results. And if we keep not having them, people are going to keep being out there, and they’re going to be very upset. And this is a huge city, you know? So I keep seeing tourists are like, “Hey, do you know if the protesters are coming, and if they’re going to eat me?” I’m like, “No, no, you’ll be fine.” But this is a very healthy sort of disruption for trying to get something to happen. I don’t think we can trust the feds.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mychal, what you’re hearing, not from the politicians, but from the streets, of what people are demanding, as this will build?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Well, the conversation needs not to be about trust or whether or not black communities, brown communities can trust police. It’s about, what is the police job? What is their job description? What are they out there on the streets doing? And if the job is tough, the job is—like, give them less to do. Like, decriminalize drugs, decriminalize sex work. Like, get rid of the broken windows theory. Make them responsible for doing less.

AMY GOODMAN: Your T-shirt, Mychal, Native Son by Richard Wright?

MYCHAL DENZEL SMITH: Yes, indeed. I am a native son. And I fear for my life, in the same ways that, you know, Eric Garner was fighting for his.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there. I thank you all so much for being with us. Mychal Denzel Smith is with The Nation. Graham Weatherspon is a retired detective with the New York Police Department. Harry Siegel is a columnist and editorial writer for the New York Daily News. And Nina Turner, Democratic Ohio state senator whose district includes Cleveland. This conversation will continue.

We’ll also be in Lima next week throughout the week covering the U.N. climate summit. There is a lot going on.

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