The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Grand Jury Made a Defensible Decision not to Indict in the Tamir Rice Case

A Cleveland grand jury has declined to indict the two officer involved in the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice, a young boy who died after playing with a toy pistol in a public park. No sensible person denies that the shooting was horrifying and tragic, and my heart goes out to his family. 

But horrifying and tragic do not equal criminal, and there is a key fact in the case that leads me to believe the grand jury’s decision was defensible and likely wise. To recap, in November last year Rice was playing in the park with a realistic-looking Airsoft pistol. The orange cap had been removed, making it look even more like a real gun. A citizen called 911 to report on Rice’s actions, and said the gun was “probably fake . . . but he’s waving it around at people… it’s scaring the shit out of me.”

Here’s the key fact:

Although the caller specified to the dispatcher that the person in question was possibly a child playing with a toy, that information was not relayed to the officers and the officers responded to the call as an “active shooter” situation, authorities said.

It was not the officers’ fault that they rolled up on the scene without that key piece of information. Thus, the officers were reasonably on a much higher state of alert. Then when Rice didn’t put his hands in the air despite shouted commands to do so — but instead seemed to reach into his waistband — their decision to open fire is rational, not criminal.

There is no doubt that the officer fired extremely quickly. And there’s little doubt that had he waited even a few additional seconds that Rice would be alive today. But it’s one thing to make a split-second deadly decision when you believe that you’re dealing with an “active shooter” — it’s quite another if you believe the gun is “probably fake.”

A grand jury does not determine best police practices. And its decision shouldn’t be interpreted as an endorsement of all aspects of the involved officers’ decision-making. But when cops believe they’re dealing with a potential active shooter, and they use deadly force when that potential shooter reaches into his waistband rather than puts his hands in the air, it’s difficult to second-guess a grand jury who sees no basis for subjecting those officers to a criminal trial.

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