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Cleveland officer will not face charges in Tamir Rice shooting death

Demonstrators gathered Monday at the Cudell Recreation Area in Cleveland, where Tamir Rice, 12, was shot by a police officer in November 2014. Credit Alex Slitz for The New York Times

A grand jury declined on Monday to charge a Cleveland patrolman who fatally shot a 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, capping more than a year of investigation into a case that added to national outrage over white officers killing African-Americans.

In announcing the decision, Timothy J. McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, said he had recommended that the grand jurors not bring charges in the killing of the boy, Tamir Rice, who was playing with the gun outside a recreation center in November 2014.

Mr. McGinty said the fatal encounter had been a tragedy and a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications.” But he said that enhancement of video from the scene had made it “indisputable” that Tamir, who was black, was drawing the pellet gun from his waistband when he was shot, either to hand it over to the officers or to show them that it was not a real firearm. He said that there was no reason for the officers to know that, and that the officer who fired, Timothy Loehmann, had a reason to fear for his life.

The case began when a caller to 911 said a male was pointing a gun at people in a Cleveland park. The caller added that the gun was “probably fake,” and that the person waving it was “probably a juvenile.” But those caveats were not relayed to Officer Loehmann or his partner, Frank Garmback, who was driving the patrol car. Officer Loehmann, who is white, opened fire within seconds of arriving at the park. Officer Garmback was also spared any charges.

The shooting in Cleveland came just two days before a grand jury in Missouri declined to indict a white police officer in Ferguson who fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old. The Ferguson case became one of a series of police killings that drew protests — in New York, Baltimore, North Charleston, S.C., and other cities — by demonstrators denouncing the way the police treat African-Americans.

Though some officers have been charged this year for on-duty killings, in cities including Cincinnati and Baltimore, others have not. Mr. McGinty said that no matter how tragic the circumstances involving Tamir’s death, the law gives the benefit of the doubt to officers who must make split-second decisions.

Tamir’s family and protesters had criticized the approach of the prosecutor throughout the investigation, which took more than 13 months. The Cleveland police initially investigated the case, then the county sheriff’s office conducted its own inquiry. Mr. McGinty’s office released the results of the sheriff’s investigation in June, and months later presented the case to a grand jury.

“It has been clear for months now that Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty was abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment,” lawyers for Tamir Rice’s family said Monday in a statement. “Even though video shows the police shooting Tamir in less than one second, Prosecutor McGinty hired so-called expert witnesses to try to exonerate the officers and tell the grand jury their conduct was reasonable and justified.”

City and state officials urged calm. In a statement, Gov. John R. Kasich, a Republican presidential candidate, said that he understood “how this decision will leave many people asking themselves if justice was served,” but urged residents not to “give in to anger and frustration and let it divide us.”

A steady wind and cold rain Monday night drove away a small group of demonstrators who had gathered at the park where Tamir was fatally shot. Mementos were left at a makeshift memorial there throughout the day, including dozens of teddy bears, plastic flowers and small wooden crosses. The rain and wind extinguished candles that had been lit in the boy’s memory.

At a news conference after the prosecutor’s announcement, Mayor Frank Jackson expressed condolences to the Rice family and said the city would begin an administrative review of the shooting now that the grand jury’s work was finished. Mr. Jackson said meaningful changes to the Division of Police had been made since Tamir’s death, including efforts to give officers first-aid training and provide basic medical kits in police cars.

“This has caused the city of Cleveland, with the loss of a child at the hands of a police officer, to do a lot of soul searching,” Mr. Jackson said. “And in the midst of that soul searching we have made some changes.”

“All this is designed to better ensure that an incident like this will never happen again,” he added.

Police Chief Calvin Williams said Officers Loehmann and Garmback would remain on restricted duty until the administrative review was completed. He said the review would look at whether department policies were violated during the encounter, including the actions of the call taker and dispatcher, the shooting itself, and the aftermath. “We’ll look at the incident from start to finish,” Chief Williams said, and consider discipline if violations are found.

As with many police killings this year, outrage was sparked by what was caught on camera. Grainy surveillance video, which circulated widely online, showed Officer Garmback pulling the police cruiser within a few feet of Tamir and Officer Loehmann stepping out of the car and almost immediately firing his gun. Tamir died hours later.

Mr. McGinty noted that the officers had never been told that the original caller suggested the gun might be a fake. “Had the officers been aware of these qualifiers, the training officer who was driving might have approached the scene with less urgency,” said Mr. McGinty, who said the officers could not be penalized for what they did not know. “Lives may not have been put at stake.”

Matthew Meyer, an assistant prosecutor, said that it was difficult to tell the difference between the pellet gun and a real one because the orange safety tip was missing, and that the guns otherwise look the same from a distance. Prosecutors also said that Tamir looked large for his age, and that the neighborhood has a history of violence, and that other officers have been killed nearby.

Mr. McGinty said: “The death of Tamir Rice was an absolute tragedy. It was horrible, unfortunate and regrettable. But it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime.”

Mr. McGinty defended his decision to publicly release a series of expert reports he commissioned before the grand jury announcement, saying they made for a transparent process that allowed the public to reach informed conclusions. Those reports found that Officer Loehmann acted reasonably in shooting Tamir, but the Rice family commissioned its own outside reports that reached the opposite conclusion.

Mr. McGinty said he had called Tamir’s mother to tell her of the grand jury’s actions and that it had been a “tough conversation.” He said he “appreciated the sincere emotion and concern of all citizens” but asked the community to “respect the process.” He said Tamir’s family may yet find some redress in civil courts.

Some people, however, were outraged. Representative Marcia Fudge, a Democrat whose district includes part of Cleveland, said Monday that she believed the grand jury process was a “miscarriage of justice” and that Mr. McGinty should step down.

“I didn’t get all of the information from the grand jury. They may have come up with the right decision,” Ms. Fudge said. “But all of the process around it makes all of us question the fairness. This is just outrageous that a case would take that long.”

Neither Officer Garmback nor Officer Loehmann has spoken publicly about the shooting, though both men read statements to grand jurors about their actions that day. Officer Loehmann told the grand jury that he fired out of fear for his safety after Tamir reached into his waistband and grabbed the pellet gun, which he believed to be real.

Tamir’s family has questioned Officer Loehmann’s account, and has sued the city and both officers in federal court.

Since Tamir’s death, questions have been raised about Officer Loehmann’s qualifications and about the Cleveland police’s standards on the use of force. Records show that Officer Loehmann resigned from another Ohio police department after a “dangerous loss of composure” during firearms training. The Cleveland police did not review that department’s personnel file before offering him a job.

For years, the Cleveland police have been criticized for being too aggressive in their use of force, and for broader failures in management, record keeping and training. In May, the city agreed to a sweeping consent decree with the Justice Department that required changes in how officers use and report force, and placed the police under the supervision of an independent monitor.

Mr. McGinty presents evidence in all fatal police encounters to a grand jury, but some activists have questioned the fairness of the process, and have noted that indictments are generally unlikely unless one is sought by a prosecutor.

In the Rice case, family lawyers have said for months that they have little confidence that Mr. McGinty wanted the officers charged. The lawyers have called for a special prosecutor in the case and have asked the Justice Department to investigate.

Justice Department officials said Monday that they would “continue our independent review of this matter, assess all available materials and determine what actions are appropriate, given the strict burdens and requirements imposed by applicable federal civil rights laws.”

Expecting protests in the days ahead, Cleveland officials said they were prepared to allow peaceful demonstrations.

“There have already been plans for a response, both at an immediate level and a long protracted struggle,” said the Rev. Jawanza Colvin, the pastor of a Cleveland church who signed the affidavits this year seeking the officers’ arrests.

But Mr. Colvin said Monday’s outcome had long been anticipated.

“The fact that we are not surprised,” he said, “is in and of itself an indictment of the culture of the criminal justice system.”

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