The 911 caller explained that the gun may not have been real, and the black male may have been a boy. In fact, it was a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice. The operator’s call to police wasn’t quite so detailed:
Officers responded to the center for a report of a “male threatening people with a gun,” police said. The officers were never told the caller who reported the gun said the gun may be fake, and the person pointing it at people may have been a juvenile, police said.
At first blush, it would seem this omission spelled the difference between life and death for a 12-year-old. That’s not so clear. When the police arrived, they had the ability to see the individual, and could determine he was a child. They also had the ability to see the gun, and ought to have been at least as capable, if not more so, than an unknown 911 caller to say whether it was a real weapon or not.
But even if the 911 operator told the responding officers that it was a 12-year-old boy with what may be a fake gun, would that have changed things? Would the officers have assumed the gun to be fake because an unknown caller thought it might be? Not only does it violate the First Rule of Policing, but it’s not prudent under any circumstances. Even less so under these:
The officers saw the boy put the gun in his waistband, according to police. When the officers told him to put his hands in the air, he reached into his waistband and pulled it out, police said. Officers fired two shots, at least one of which hit him in the stomach.
Police later determined the gun was a BB gun with the orange safety cap removed.
One distinction here is worthy of note. The police didn’t wiggle their way through an explanation of what happened. There was no mumbling of “further investigation” and “unclear.” The story was immediately told, and the 911 tape released. Compare with what happened in other cases, most notably the killing of Michael Brown. The police didn’t wait for time to construct a story to absolve them of responsibility here.
There are many questions still, as to why Tamir Rice had a BB gun with its orange safety cap removed, why he didn’t raise his hands when ordered to do so. The police officers, seeing that the individual wasn’t the amorphous “black male,” but a 12-year-old boy, could have considered options other than killing him.
The attorney hired by Rice’s family, Timothy Kucharski, pointed out that the boy never actually pointed the gun at the officer.
This detail may ultimately prove the most significant. This isn’t the first instance of a person having a gun in officer’s presence. Nor is it the first instance of a person not putting their hands up, or dropping the gun as the command may be, and the police not shooting first. While police can explain, credibly, that it takes a fraction of a second for a gun pointed elsewhere to be pointed at an officer and the trigger pulled, there was no indication that Rice was bent on shooting anyone, particularly police.
Still, he didn’t comply with a command that, under the circumstances, was eminently reasonable.
This is where many, myself included, ponder the ways in which another tragic killing of a human being could have been avoided. There will be those who ask why they couldn’t have shot him in his leg rather than stomach, having watched too many TV shows where police wing a perp and everyone survives. Others will question why not-always-lethal tasing wasn’t their first choice, so that they could disarm him without killing a child.
There are certainly other options that were available, and would have meant that Tamir Rice learned a terrible lesson that day about guns and cops, but at least lived to tell about it. The police, a rookie and a ten-year veteran, used none of them. They shot twice, one bullet striking him in the stomach. That bullet took his young life.
But the question isn’t whether there were other choices. The question is whether the choice they made was a lawful choice, a rational choice. As much as the shooting resulted in tragedy, the choice of shooting was lawful.
That doesn’t mean it’s without questions, without concerns. Certainly, we would hope that police would exercise every ounce of discretion to avoid shooting a child. There may still be facts that arise, witnesses who raise disputes over what the police claim, that produce a different analysis.
Maybe the police not only had choices, but that what happened on the ground in Cleveland mandated that they not rush to fire as there was no threat to their safety. Maybe Tamir Rice called out in response to their command that it was just a toy, a BB gun, and took it out of his waistband to show them that it was harmless. Maybe he reacted foolishly, because that’s how 12-year-old boys are, careless, thoughtless children who aren’t yet mature enough to understand how dangerous a situation can be. Maybe.
For now, however, this isn’t another Michael Brown, another Akai Gurley, another anything. Except that it is another tragedy, as it’s a tragedy when any human being’s life is needlessly cut short by violence, whether cop or kid.
Tragic outcomes don’t necessarily mean wrongful causes. Sometimes a tragedy occurs and there is no one to blame. This may be one of those times.