Everyone – including officer Timothy Loehmann – agrees that what happened to Tamir Rice was a mistake. In an ideal world, a 12-year-old kid would never be shot by the cops without warning for pulling a toy gun out of his waistband. No one argues that this should have happened. Where opinions diverge is whether this is the kind of mistake that should be paid for with criminal sanction.
Here, the conversation is inevitably poisoned by preconceived notions about our culture, the police, and which side of the tracks we tend to live on. Because Tamir Rice was 12, and because he was shot by a cop, we’ve all seen the video of Rice reaching into his waistband probably several dozen times. That particular half a second, slowed down a thousand times, has been dissected and discussed and beaten to death by partisans on both sides of the issue.
The behavior of prosecutor Tim McGinty has been likewise beaten to death in both the media and online commentary. His behavior in presenting exculpatory evidence to the Grand Jury, and clearly pointing them to possible weaknesses in the case against Loehmann and Garmback has been criticized, with good reason.
Here is what I can say, as someone who has been on the other side of the table from more than one criminal prosecutor – if Loehmann had been an ordinary citizen who was walking through the park that day, he still would have been privileged to pull a firearm that he legally owned and shoot Tamir Rice if he had a reasonable belief that Rice was about to shoot him. The standard for self-defense (or defense of others) is roughly the same as the standard for the policeman’s application of lethal force.
And yet, I can promise that if a 12 year old kid armed with a pellet gun had ended up dead at the hands of an ordinary, non-cop citizen, leading to community outrage, the prosecutor would at least ensure that the defendant in question faced a manslaughter charge, no questions asked. If the defendant in question hired an attorney who aggressively maintained the innocence of his client and fought the indictment (as opposed to immediately begging for a plea deal), the charges would likely have escalated. The prosecutor would have placed the defendant in the position of choosing to trust 12 random strangers with a decision about the fate of his life or accepting whatever deal the prosecutor was offering.
There are some well meaning conservatives who have responded to this unassailable truth with the rejoinder that McGinty’s treatment of Loehmann and Garmback was justified because they are cops. I submit that this is the least conservative response to this situation possible, and the one that is the most flatly inconsistent with the populace of a country that is under the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of cops). Cops are issued a badge, with all the awesome, life-destroying force that it potentially wields, and a gun, and given a virtual monopoly on the use of lethal force against the citizenry.
It’s all well and good that cops are given this authority; after all, someone has to wield it. However, to combine the extension of that authority with an attitude that suggests that cops ought to essentially face much less aggressive monitoring by the criminal justice system than is afforded to non-cops is to practically invite tyranny, abuse of power, and reduced personal freedom at the hands of law enforcement.
The attitudes people have towards this sort of event are astounding. When an officer commits a homicide (defined as the killing of another human being, justified or not), they are indicted about 1% of the time and convicted less than half the times they are indicted, on average. Meanwhile, best estimates nationwide show that between 40-50% of all homicides in the United States lead to some sort of criminal conviction (or plea bargain) – and that the rate of criminal sanction is much higher for homicides involving firearms (which account for virtually all the homicides involving police).
Of course, this number would be much higher except for the fact that the person responsible for the homicide is only identified by police in roughly 65% of all cases. Within the subset of homicides where the person who caused the homicide is known (as it is in virtually all officer-involved shooting cases), the criminal sanction rate is much closer to 80% (the remaining 20% constituting mostly justified/excusable homicides like self defense cases, non-negligent accidents, etc.)
I think that this disparity is what has people so fired up about the Tamir Rice case. It’s not that Loehmann and Garmback got a fair day in court; it’s that so many everyday people in America don’t. It’s that the legal system is clearly set up to extend every possible benefit of the doubt to police – when reason suggests that the responsibility of the badge should come with higher (not lower) scrutiny. It’s that people see a system where prosecutors are politically motivated by their own ambitions to always aim for higher conviction rates regardless of the facts, and are more interested in appearing “tough on crime” than they are in appearing “fair to the facts,” except of course when a police officer is accused of wrongdoing.
This is not to mention the fact that, particularly in large municipalities, police officers have paid union lawyers who they can instruct to fight every indictment tooth and nail without regard for the financial ruin of their personal families.
A country where those responsible for dispensing the justice of the State are held to a lower standard of behavior than the general public is a country that invites tyranny on itself. Believing that most cops are good at their job and fair to the public doesn’t require a defense of the principle that cops ought not to face the same scrutiny as ordinary people do from prosecutors every day. In fact, it should require the opposite.