Thinking Clearly About the Shooting of Tamir Rice

As a father to two young boys, I grow sick watching video of 12-year-old Tamir Rice gunned down by police officers. Take the politics out of it. No matter what view you hold about law enforcement practices or race relations, the death of a young boy – of someone’s son – remains inconceivably tragic. I can’t help but think of my own boys, of how easily they could be caught in similar circumstances and end up mowed down by an authority entrusted with their protection.

In an era where every tragedy seems to be politicized, it becomes difficult to think clearly. Movements with ulterior motives seek to shoehorn incidents into a mold which serves their agenda. To the Black Lives Matter crowd and similar groups fundamentally opposed to policing, the shooting death of Tamir Rice stands as further evidence of an “open season” on black males. Conversely, and largely in response to such radical ideas, support of law enforcement can grow blind to legitimate disparities and injustices. Somewhere in between lies a clear vision of the status quo and a path to necessary reform.

Reason joins a number of publications which stand aghast at news that two separate expert investigations have deemed the shooting of Tamir Rice as “reasonable.” Robby Soave writes:

People who have seen the full video footage, or read about the other troubling details, might wonder how anyone could possibly reach the conclusion that the shooting was justified. To review: a tipster told the police dispatcher that Rice was playing with a “probably fake” gun, but this detail was not relayed to the responding officers; rather than approaching from a distance, [Officer Frank] Garmback parked his vehicle nearly on top of Rice; Loehmann—an officer-in-training who was fired from a previous police job because of incompetence with firearms—pulled the trigger before Rice could properly react to the situation, ostensibly because the teen reached for the fake gun he was carrying inside his waistband; both cops allowed Rice to bleed on the ground for several minutes, doing nothing until an FBI agent turned up; they prevented Rice’s sister from helping him, instead handcuffing her and placing her in the squad car while her brother’s life drained away.

But according to the reports, it doesn’t matter whether the shooting seems justified in hindsight—it only matters whether a reasonable officer, in the same position as Loehmann, would have reacted in the same way. In other words, the multitude of factors suggesting the cops should have refrained from shooting Rice add up to nothing. The only thing that matters is Loehmann’s own subjective view of the threat to his own person. That threat was nonexistent, but Loehmann didn’t see it that way, which makes the shooting justified in the opinion of the only person who counts.

Soave and those of like mind believe that officers may recklessly kill the innocent without consequence, so long as they can craft a plausible narrative of self-defense after the fact. This perception is not entirely accurate. But it’s not entirely inaccurate either.

Next: Neither side of the debate is completely right…

There are two conflicting perspectives which need to be balanced in the administration of justice. The first is that of the officer in the field. Most people will never understand what it is like to put their life on the line in the defense of others. Most people will never have to make snap judgments with life or death consequences. The reason twenty-twenty hindsight cannot be applied to a consideration of whether a police shooting was “reasonable” is because no police shooting occurs with twenty-twenty hindsight. It occurs in the moment. If you’re going to hold officers accountable, you must do so in the context of that moment. You can’t hold them accountable to facts and circumstances which they were not aware of. “Reasonable” means reasonable in the known circumstances.

However, the other perspective which should be weighed is that of the citizenry. The nature of law enforcement work, and the often unfair judgment of critics, can lead officers to adopt an “us vs. them” mentality which dismisses the concerns of citizens when a shooting like that of Tamir Rice occurs. Critics may lack the expertise to competently judge law enforcement practices. But the fact remains that policing is the rawest form of governance. If we uphold self-governance as an ideal, then the public’s expectations of law enforcement must count for something.

It may be wrong to call the shooting of Tamir Rice murder. But it’s also wrong to dismiss it as acceptable. Officer Loehmann may have responded reasonably in the moment. But that does not fully exonerate him, Officer Garmback, or the broader system which produced the circumstances of that moment. Clearly, when an innocent 12-year-old boy is shot and killed by the police, something has gone terribly wrong. Inquiry should not end with the question of whether the shooting was “reasonable.” It should continue until we understand how to avoid similar tragedies in the future.