Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Three reports support the police shooting of the 12-year-old boy. But “reasonable” actions for police are alarmingly, intentionally violent.
You’ve watched the video of Cleveland police shooting and killing Tamir Rice outside of a community recreation center. You saw how a police car raced up on Rice as he stood by a gazebo. You witnessed Officer Timothy Loehmann bounce out of the passenger-side door, firing a shot at Rice less than two seconds after the car stopped. You know from media reports that Rice was only 12 years old, and that the “weapon” he was holding was actually an “airsoft” gun replica. Based on what you have seen, you may have some doubts about the legitimacy of this shooting.
But that’s “armchair quarterbacking.” There’s no way you could have known what was in the minds of the police or what they thought they saw in those few seconds it took to bolt toward the gazebo, stopping so close to Rice that there was nothing left to do but shoot him. Rice might have been reaching for what could’ve been a real gun in his waistband. They had no choice.
This is what FBI special agent Kimberly A. Crawford wrote in her review of the “deadly force incident” released this past weekend. It’s one of three like-minded audits (all of which were prepared for the prosecutor’s office and none of which functions as any kind of legal ruling), all of which absolve Officer Loehmann by claiming that his shooting of Rice was “objectively reasonable.” If you think it was unreasonable, well, Crawford reminds you that:
this type of “armchair quarterbacking” has no place in determining the reasonableness of an officers use of force, and is exactly the type of analysis the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals warned against in Smith v. Freeland when it stated: “...we must avoid substituting our personal notions of proper police procedures for the instantaneous decision of the police officer on the scene. We must never allow the theoretical, sanitized world of our imagination to replace the dangerous and complex world that policemen face every day.”
Crawford’s eight-page report uses little space to pick apart any theory questioning Officer Loehmann’s right to shoot to kill. Wondering why the police didn’t give warning before running roughshod across the grass and jumping out of the car, gun blazing? That’s “insignificant to this constitutional review,” writes Crawford, and besides, “warnings are to be given when feasible.”
Wondering why the officer didn’t recognize that Rice was just a kid? Doesn’t matter, writes Crawford, because, “whether Rice looked his age or not is irrelevant to the determination of the reasonableness of Officer Loehmann’s actions.”
What all of this really boils down to is training. The police are trained to respond the way they did, according to Crawford; the way that police gauge whether someone is a threat is different from the way a civilian might. This means that while other people were able to engage nonviolently with Rice on the afternoon of November 22, 2014, without feeling threatened, police only had one option: gunfire.
According to the investigative review from S. Lamar Sims, a deputy district attorney from Denver, one of the witnesses, an arts and crafts teacher at the rec center, walked up to Rice that afternoon and talked to him, even though she initially thought the gun was real. She was looking at Rice through a civilian’s eyes, though. Had she been a trained officer, she would have known that Rice couldn’t be talked to because he was a threat, and hence on-the-spot shooting was necessary to stop the threat.
Age ain’t nothing but a number, either, because according to Crawford, “Law enforcement training often incorporates lessons designed to dispel the notion that minors are harmless.”
Perhaps you’re thinking that the cops could have merely tased Rice, or just shot him in the arm or leg to avoid killing him. Nope. Writes Crawford:
The quickest, most efficient, and practical way for a law enforcement officer to forcibly bring about a timely halt to threatening actions is to deprive the subject’s brain of the oxygen necessary to continue conscious action. Because oxygen is carried to the brain by blood, law enforcement officers are trained to aim for center mass where most of the blood-bearing organs are located. Attempts to incapacitate by shooting a subject in the arm or leg are not only impractical, they are contrary to universal law enforcement training.
Maybe you’re thinking that this kind of training basically ensures that police will cause deadly problems rather than try to solve them in these kinds of situations. You would be absolutely correct. That’s the whole point of police trainings, writes Crawford, drawing from the 1994 Plakas v. Drinski case, where a federal court in Indiana found that cops are not required to use the least-lethal means of de-escalating a situation, and nor does it matter what they did in the lead-up to the situation, even if those things might have been exacerbating rather than helpful.
“In this sense the police always cause the trouble,” said the court in the Plakas v. Drinski decision. “But it is trouble which the police officer is sworn to cause, which society pays him to cause and which, if kept within constitutional limits, society praises the officer for causing.”
This is what we pay police to do, to our own applause.
Crawford wrote that there are two universal concepts when it comes to all law enforcement training: “threat identification and action versus reaction.” A number of police-reform groups from Ferguson to the White House would argue that what’s left out of those “universal concepts” is the ability to determine when a person’s skin color colors one’s identification of the threat.
The White House’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing spoke to this in its final report issued this year, saying:
All human beings have biases or prejudices as a result of their experiences, and these biases influence how they might react when dealing with unfamiliar people or situations. An explicit bias is a conscious bias about certain populations based upon race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, or other attributes. Common sense shows that explicit bias is incredibly damaging to police-community relations, and there is a growing body of research evidence that shows that implicit bias—the biases people are not even aware they have—is harmful as well. …
To achieve legitimacy, mitigating implicit bias should be a part of training at all levels of a law enforcement organization to increase awareness and ensure respectful encounters both inside the organization and with communities.
Police are only as violent as they are trained to be. If racial bias is ignored in those trainings, then, yes, it’s perfectly reasonable by those standards for young black men to be killed by police—even in situations where civilians have been able to engage with them nonviolently.
Crawford points out that, “Human beings are not born recognizing a threat—it is something that must be learned.”
This is true. And unfortunately, America has spent a really long time learning and accepting that people with brown skin are more threatening than others.