Whether “Boy With Toy” Or “Black Male,” Tamir Rice Is Now Dead

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.


30 thoughts on “Whether “Boy With Toy” Or “Black Male,” Tamir Rice Is Now Dead

  1. David M.

    I’m amazed to learn the First Rule of Policing is so powerful it can compel two cops to reflexively shoot a child. All this time, I thought “yes, but surely it’s just garden-variety cowardice, right?”. Guess I was wrong.

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s unclear whether two cops shot or one, and if one, which one. But as to the “power” of the First Rule, that’s why it’s the First Rule. Yes, you were very wrong.

  2. lawrence kaplan

    I recently read the following passage from the journal of Meriwether Lewis of Lewis and Clark fame. He is describing his fight with the Blackfeet:

    “I reached to seize my gun but found her gone. I then drew a pistol from my holster and terning myself about saw the Indian making off with my gun. I ran at him with my pistol and bid him lay down my gun which he was in act of dong when the Fieldses returned and drew up their guns to shoot him which I FORBID as he did not appear to be about to make any resistance or commit any offensive act. He dropped the gun and walked slowly off. I picked her up instantly.”

    We should weep with shame.

    1. SHG Post author

      There is a quote to suit any outcome. Don’t be a slave to quotes. Had the Indian turned and killed Meriwether Lewis instead of laying the gun down, it wouldn’t exist.

      1. John Barleycorn

        Speaking of quotes, the child’s father was quoted in a USA Today article at length via of other sources.

        “Who would’ve thought he would go so soon?” Henderson told WKYC.
        “He had his whole life ahead (of him). To be 12 years old, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. Police they know what they’re doing.”

        P.S. “BB gun” has now been widely replaced with “replica gun” in most news outlets.

          1. John Barleycorn

            “Replica” is now trending towards the generic use of a the word “weapon” as in “The boy had a weapon and reached for it”.

            Oh, and there seems to be some security camera footage of the killing/shooting/incident/SNFU (whatever, the most accurate way to describe another dead brown kid being added to the first-rule-pile is) which the police are holding onto for safe keeping.

            If only it wasn’t so exceedingly distant from my skill set. I might put forth some speculation via which nuance/s of the English language may be deployed at the next PD press conference and in the news.

            P.S. It’s movie night for the PD’s Public Relations Department so don’t expect them to be home in time for dinner.

      2. lawrence kaplan

        SHG: Indeed, you are right. Meriwether Lewis would have been justified in killing the Indian. He made a judgement call not to kill him and proved to be right. But what are we to say about police today who not only shoot people who have guns pointed at them, but who have no guns at all but reach into a car to get a license, who have I-phones that police somehow mistake for guns, and the like, about which you have written eloquently. One thing is for certain: Lewis would not have shot and killed that young boy.

        Perhaps there should be a new first rule of policing: “Let me see if I can get home today without shooting anyone.”.

  3. Charles Platt

    Having had a weapon pointed at me (by a drunk neighbor) I know my reflex was to get behind something for my own defense. You have to be very aggressive, or very untrusting, or very scared, to just start blasting away.

    I have no doubt that in the situation where this occurred, there would have been many objects to hide behind while shouting repeated commands to the boy and assessing his behavior.

    Of course there is the argument, “We were afraid he would start shooting other people.” But there was no statement that he was pointing the gun at other people, or threatening them. My money is on the cops being aggressive, untrusting, and scared, because that matches my perceptions of the cop mentality–in the USA, at least. In other countries, not so.

    Once again, it comes down to training. In what ways are US cops trained differently from those in, say, Switzerland or the UK, where confrontations involving guns somehow don’t seem to end as badly?

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s flawed to compare yourself to police. They have signed on for the job, and they’re trained for the job. You are not. As for your having “no doubt,” that’s a luxury that thoughtfulness precludes. We don’t get to make facts up, no matter how strongly we have no doubt about it.

      1. Charles Platt

        That was my whole point. I don’t think they are appropriately “trained for the job,” at least compared with cops in other countries such as those I mentioned.

        As for there being nothing to hide behind in an area outside a recreation center, fair point, maybe so, but presumably the police did arrive in a vehicle. There would be that, if nothing else. Or they could simply have flattened themselves on the ground. The issue is whether you respond defensively or aggressively. In this case, I think, the latter.

        1. SHG Post author

          Got your point about training, which I took no issue with. Just addressing some of the questionable bits of your surplusage. Honing the edge of the knife, so to speak.

    2. Bartleby the Scrivener

      It comes down to training…

      …or experience…
      …or that people in those other countries are less likely to shoot a cop than people in this country…
      …or the facts of this specific situation to which we are not privy…
      …or a lot of other things.

      You’ve had one person point a gun at you one time and your first instinct is to hide. Heaven only knows how many times these cops have been threatened, but I suspect their reactions would not be the same as yours. I’ve been robbed at gunpoint three times, shot at twice, and stabbed once. If I have a gun pointed at me again, my first instinct will be to hide *and* shoot.

      The most common proper response to a threat is to alleviate the threat to one’s self. In the case of the cops, it’s to alleviate the threat to themselves and as well as the threat to others. You’re looking through a very narrow lens in determining what you think appropriate action is and seem ready to condemn because of that narrow lens.

      I’d prefer to consider other relevant facts.

    3. David Stanek

      You say “I have no doubt”, but you actually don’t know. The officer was less than 10 feet away according to the information the police have released. What do you think you would find if you were to compare the time it took to grab the gun, aim and shoot against the time it would take to look around, find a hiding place and run a few feet to get there.

  4. Patrick Maupin

    I just saw that there are already legislators calling for requiring all BB guns to be brightly colored, to simplify the required police training, I suppose, and automatically shift the blame. Of course, rather than simplifying training, that only really leads to escalation — who wouldn’t want a brightly colored real gun once that’s not at all suspicious?

    As I was pondering out loud “Where does it end? Would a lime-green wallet have saved Amadou Diallo?” my wife sagely responded that the obvious way to save the most lives from this sort of mistake would be to paint all the black kids white.

  5. REvers

    I almost feel sorry for the cops. After all, this kid was only 12, and thus far too young to have amassed the kind of record they can use to explain why it’s a good thing the heroes killed him when they did.

      1. REvers

        Well, his father has a history of domestic violence, according to a story on Cleveland.com. They can now argue it was a good thing the heroes took those genes out of the pool.

          1. morgan sheridan

            Yet the smearing now proceeds with gusto. The media must ensure this child’s execution is legitimized to the public.

  6. Sean F.

    Slate now has video of this shooting (poor quality security footage).

    The footage is too poor to tell if the kid went for the gun, but it’s interesting how the police (knowing that they are going to confront a “male threatening people with a gun” appear to pull up to about 10 feet away from the kid and exit the vehicle on his side. Once the cops decide to get that close, any sudden movement by the kid stands a good chance of being fatal under the First Rule.

    1. SHG Post author

      Yeah, I’ve seen the video and plan to write about it tomorrow so I didn’t update the post. I think it’s worth a post of its own, so I left the link out. Thanks.

  7. Cherryl

    For those who haven’t seen the video, Tamir didn’t have time to put his hands up before he was shot!! The police car had barely stopped moving before the policeman jumped out and shot him.

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

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