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Questions and Outrage Swirling in Cleveland After Police Shoot and Kill 12-Year-Old Black Boy Who Was Holding a Toy Gun

Tamir Rice

Tamir Rice

One moment 12-year-old Tamir E. Rice was playing in a Cleveland park with his sister and friends, showing off his BB gun near the swings. A few moments later the boy was lying on the ground with a police officer’s bullet in his stomach, eventually dying yesterday morning in a case whose headlines quickly ricocheted across the nation.

A key question emerging is why the police dispatcher didn’t relay to the officers the crucial bit of information that came from the 911 caller complaining about Tamir scaring other kids with his gun: The caller twice said the gun was “probably fake.” The caller also said the person carrying it was “probably a juvenile.”

Toward the end of the 911 call, the caller added, “I don’t know if it’s real or not.”

But that information stopped at the dispatcher. Cleveland police officials say the two officers—who have not been identified—who responded to the scene told the boy to raise his hands, but instead Tamir reached for the black gun in his waistband. Perhaps his intent was to show them it was fake—but we’ll never know. Once he pulled it out, one of the officers opened fire, shooting twice, with one of the bullets hitting Tamir in the stomach. He died at MetroHealth Medical Center early Sunday morning.

Coming just two days after a New York City police officer accidentally shot a 28-year-old Black man in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project and in the midst of the nation’s anxious wait for the grand jury verdict on whether police officer Darren Wilson will be charged for killing unarmed teen Michael Brown, the killing of a 12-year-old boy brandishing a BB gun considerably exacerbates the Black community’s sense of outrage that the police are much too quick to respond to African-Americans with deadly force.

Indeed, that was exactly the sentiment Tamir’s dad, Gregory Henderson, was grappling with as he sat underneath the gazebo where his son died in Cudell Commons park, outside the Cudell Recreation Center, and asked reporters why the officer had to kill a 12-year-old boy.

“Why not taze him? You shot him twice, not once, and at the end of the day you all don’t shoot for the legs, you shoot for the upper body,” Henderson said, according to cleveland.com.

Tamir's BB gun

Tamir’s BB gun

Henderson said his son was a “respectful” young man who minded his elders. He said he couldn’t understand why his son would not follow police orders.

“Who would have thought he would go so soon?” Henderson said.

Timothy Kucharski, the attorney hired by the family, had his own theories about why Tamir didn’t respond—because he was just a child. Kucharski wondered why the officers did not act with more caution because they were dealing with a child.

“The police have to address these things in the proper context,” Kucharski said, according to media reports. “This is a 12-year-old boy. This is not a grown man. I’d think you would handle situations with children differently than you would with an adult. They don’t fully understand everything that is going on.”

Kucharski said he was conducting his own investigation to determine “how exactly an innocent young 12-year-old boy could be killed playing at the park.” He said the family would decide whether to sue the Cleveland police after he finishes his investigation.

“The family is devastated,” Kucharski said. “I would go as far to say inconsolable. She woke up yesterday with a son. Today, she woke up without a son. We’d love to have the prayers of the community right now.”

The case surely had many Black parents shaking their heads, remembering the warnings that have long been issued to Black boys in many communities to avoid playing outside with toy guns because a police officer might mistake it for the real thing.

The family’s lawyer stressed that Tamir never actually pointed the gun at the officers. But at a press conference on Saturday night, Deputy Chief Edward Tomba said the boy reached into his waistband and pulled the gun out before the officer opened fire.

“You have to look at this in the context that this is a 12-year-old boy, not a 35-year-old man with a criminal history,” Kucharski said. “You can’t expect adult reactions out of children.”

Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said the officer who shot Tamir saw the boy pick the gun up from a picnic table and put it into his waistband.

“The two officers were concentrating on the gun and the hands,” Follmer said, according to cleveland.com. “We’re trained that hands can kill you.”

The shooting is being probed by the police department’s Use of Deadly Force Investigation Team, which has collected evidence—including surveillance video captured from the recreation center—to present to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office, which will present the case to a grand jury. And then the public will wait for a decision, just as in Ferguson.

Only 18 months ago, according to media reports, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation to determine if Cleveland police officers are too quick to rely on deadly force. 

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