News & Politics

Can We All Agree That Cops Shouldn't Shoot 12-Year-Olds?

My son has a mild form of autism. He does not always respond well to instruction. His reactions are not typical of children his age. He can be combative or uncooperative if rubbed the wrong way, even more so than the average kid. For these reasons, I fear that what happened to 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland could happen to my son under similar circumstances.

Rice was playing with a toy gun near a recreational center in 2014 when someone spotted him and called the cops. The caller told the dispatcher that the subject might be a child with a toy gun. But that information was not passed along to the responding officers. The subsequent encounter was over in seconds, and young Rice was shot dead.

Monday, a grand jury decided not to indict the officers involved in the shooting. Civil rights activists, including elements affiliated with the “Black Lives Matter” movement, immediately cried foul. To some extent, I must join them.

While I have been highly critical of the rhetoric and tactics of Black Lives Matter, one should not toss out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. The fact as of this moment is that an innocent 12-year-old boy was killed, and no one has been held accountable. That’s not acceptable. Frustrated calls for murder charges may be out of place. But there’s a whole spectrum of lesser charges which ought to be considered in such cases.

How about negligence? We know that the dispatcher had information which proved vital to handling the situation. That information was not conveyed to officers. Should it have been? Might Rice be alive today if it was? We can see in video of the incident that the officers pulled up virtually on top of Rice and engaged him as if lethal force were a foregone conclusion. Was that the best way to handle the call? The officers admit they did not know Rice was so young when they shot him. If they hadn’t observed a detail like that, shouldn’t it remain suspect whether they observed details warranting lethal force?

These are the kinds of questions a legal proceeding could answer. But we’re not going to see that now unless federal authorities decide to press charges. Instead, the department will conduct an internal investigation not open to the public and determine whether any disciplinary action is warranted. It’s all very antiseptic compared to how a shooting in another context would be handled.

I carry for a living. If my conduct on the job resulted in a death, no matter the circumstances, I could count on being fired and sued into oblivion. That’s a possibility I accept as part of my occupation.

By contrast, police seem empowered to excuse virtually any result by claiming to have perceived a threat. Certainly, we want the men and women entrusted with protecting us to feel free to first protect themselves. But shouldn’t that be balanced in some way with an obligation to preserve life where possible?

The racial aspect of the Rice case cannot be ignored. It may not be fair to assume race played a role in Rice’s death. But it’s not entirely unfair to consider whether it did. If he had been a white kid in the suburbs playing with a toy gun at the park, would the response have been the same? If not, why not?

We should consider what can be done to mitigate such concerns. A number of potential solutions have been offered, many of which have merit. They would require legislative action. Police have been operating in an environment crafted by law, and changes in law will be required to change that environment.

This is not and should not be a witch hunt to exact revenge for perceived wrongs. Rather, it should be a well-considered process to seek reconciliation. Our law enforcement officers deserve to be set up for success. The broader community deserves a justice system they can trust. Those goals are not mutually exclusive, but will require people of more moderate temperament than “Black Lives Matter” to champion.

No one should have to fear that their child, playing in the neighborhood, might be gunned down by the police. There should be no circumstances under which we consider that acceptable. Ultimately, no one may answer for the series of events which led to Tamir Rice’s death. But we can do much to prevent similar tragedies in the future.