‘I’m still waiting on the police to tell me what happened to my baby’
By Starla Muhammad and J.A. Salaam
Special to the NNPA from The Final Call
CLEVELAND – Family, friends, clergy and community residents packed Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland to say good-bye and cherish the memory of 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was shot and killed by Cleveland police at a recreation center on the city’s West Side, one and a half weeks earlier.
Emotional and touching tributes were shared, including sentiments from Jessica Tsoufiou, a teacher at Marion C. Seltzer Elementary School where Tamir was a student.
Pictures of the handsome bright-eyed sixth grader were adorned on several displays in front of the pulpit along with sprays of colorful flowers. One display read, “Summoned by Angels: Tamir E. Rice, Called by Name, June 15, 2002, Called by God, Nov. 23, 2014.” Family members wore t-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with Tamir’s name and image.
Having to pause briefly at times Dec. 3 during her emotional remarks, Ms. Tsoufiou said Tamir was well liked, enjoyed helping his classmates and liked to draw and play basketball. He was a member of the drum line and though at times struggled academically, he “consistently came to school every day.” He always laughed and smiled even with students he did not know, said Ms. Tsoufiou. Though his body is not there, he will always be in my heart, she added.
“I thank you for your son’s life, he will be greatly missed,” said Ms. Tsoufiou as she looked at Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother.
Ms. Rice took a few minutes to speak with The Final Call in the midst of her pain. She wore a dark pair of shaded glasses and still seemed to be in a daze. She spoke after the funeral.
“I’m speechless, what am I supposed to say? I’m still waiting on someone to come knock on my door. I’m still waiting on the police or someone to tell me what happened to my baby. I don’t know why all I’ve seen and know is what I’ve seen on the video. There’s still nothing, aren’t a mother supposed to know when her child is acting up?” she asked.
“Somebody should have told me something. He was right across the street from the house playing like he always does. He’s part of the community center,” said Ms. Rice.
Others shared her grief and difficulty accepting the boy’s death. (See Final Call Vol. 34, No. 9).
People from across the country were in attendance sharing the pain and grief of the Rice family. Among them was Tory Russell, of Hands Up United from Ferguson, Mo. and over 500 people filled Mount Sinai Baptist Church pews.
“I came from Ferguson to let you know you are not alone and we are with you all the way. We stand with you and will fight until we get answers and justice for your son, our little brother. We are a family and we are all affected by this and it has to stop,” said Mr. Russell.
“What you have is bad apples. It’s like a family and the police department is like that. What you have are people who do evil things. You have good and bad but the good ones won’t call the bad ones or evil ones out. So you have the bad ones that make them all look bad. In my opinion they murdered that child, now it should be transparency clean it up and bring justice to the situation. Like a family they should hold him accountable, but they got that blue shield and won’t call him out,” said Michael Africa, who attended the funeral.
“It’s hard because we used to play basketball and stuff; he was a cool person; he didn’t mess with nobody, he’ll be like chillin.’ He would always laugh,” said Tamir’s 14-year-old friend Rashad Ruffin.
“I just don’t understand how can it be okay for young Black man Mike Brown, Tamir Rice to be shot and killed and nothing happens, but somebody can go to jail for killing a dog but someone can kill a Black man and just be free? I feel it’s open season, it’s sad,” added Terresa Russell.
Why did Tamir have to die?
The cause and circumstances surrounding Tamir’s death were also on the forefront of the hearts and minds of those that gathered. During the service there were vows that Tamir’s death would not be in vain.
Tamir’s young fragile life was snuffed out like a candle in the wind, Michael Petty, his uncle told the audience. He ran down a list of accomplishments and experiences his nephew will never get to enjoy: attending a prom, getting a job, graduating high school, getting married or having children.
Mr. Petty reminded the audience since Tamir can no longer speak for himself, “we must now be his voice and his advocate through reform.” Among changes needed are the way information is relayed from 911 dispatchers to law enforcement and restructuring of police officer training nationwide, he said.
“Police officers are public servants, not James Bond with a license to kill,” said Mr. Petty, who on behalf of his family, thanked residents for their support and prayers.
Incompetent, overzealous cop?
Tamir was playing in a park at Cudell Recreation Center with a fake gun that shot non-lethal projectiles. Video recording of the incident showed Tamir pointing it at a passerby and stopping occasionally to play in the snow. According to reports, a caller reported seeing someone described as “probably a juvenile” brandishing a gun that was “probably fake” to 911. The dispatcher reportedly did not relay that information to responding officers, one of whom was Timothy Loehmann, a 26-year-old rookie who shot Tamir less than two seconds after the patrol car pulled into the park on Nov. 22. Tamir died the next day. The coroner listed the cause of death as a gunshot wound to the torso with injuries to major vessels, pelvis and intestines.
The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner ruled the boy’s death a homicide.
According to media reports, Ofc. Loehmann had a “dismal” performance as a member of the suburban Independence Police Department where he briefly worked before joining Cleveland’s police force in March. One 2012 incident described Ofc. Loehmann as “distracted and weepy” and “not mentally prepared to be doing firearm training.” He allegedly blamed his behavior on a problem he was having with his girlfriend.
According to Ofc. Loehmann’s personnel file, portions of which are posted on Cleveland.com, there were three incidents which lead to concerns about his competency. “Individually these events would not be considered major situations, but when taken together they show a pattern of a lack of maturity, indiscretion and not following instructions,” said the file. Deputy Chief Jim Polak in a Nov. 29, 2012 letter to the human resources director of the Independence Police Department said Ofc. Loehmann displayed emotional immaturity and circumvented directions that no amount of time or training would change or correct. He was preparing to meet Ofc. Loehmann, “to advise him I was beginning the disciplinary process of separation.” The men met at a Dec. 3, 2012 meeting and Ofc. Loehmann decided to resign instead, said the letter.
Cleveland police stated they did not review the file prior to hiring Ofc. Loehmann, something longtime local activist John A. Boyd does not believe. He doubts that Tamir was a minor and the gun was fake was not relayed to the police by dispatch.
“I only say that because the way they rolled up on the child. They pulled right up on him, less than 10 feet. You clearly can see that this was not an adult and if they thought that they were in danger they would have never rolled up on the situation where there was a gun involved that close,” said Mr. Boyd, a former city council candidate.
The Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office will determine if any charges will be filed against the officers.
“This cracker was just on a mission to kill someone Black, that’s all that was,” said Mr. Boyd.
History of brutality
Cleveland is no stranger to conflict between the Black community and police. Recent high profile cases of officer-involved shootings and allegations of brutality have dogged the department. The date Nov. 29 marked two years from what residents call “the Cleveland atrocity.”
Timothy Ray Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, both Black were killed by police when 13 officers unloaded 137 bullets into the unarmed couple’s car at the end of a high speed chase. Of the 13 officers that fired weapons 12 were White, one was Latino. That incident was investigated and Ohio’s State Attorney Mike DeWine released a comprehensive report stating there was several “systematic failures” within Cleveland’s Police Department that lead to the tragedy.
The city recently settled with the families of Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams for $3 million.
A grand jury earlier this year indicted five police supervisors and one officer as a result of the shooting. They are all currently awaiting trial.
Eight of the White officers and the Latino officer are currently suing in federal court for discrimination, breach of employment and civil rights violations.
In the two years since the shooting, the relationship between the Black community and police has not gotten much better and the death of Tamir Rice manifests distrust and anger that the community has endured for years, activists charge.
The U.S. Justice Department investigated the Cleveland Police Department’s use of force in 2000, the results were released in 2004 and called for better training of officers and improvement on how complaints of brutality and police shootings were investigated.
Dehumanizing Black children?
A study released earlier this year on a sampling of college students and police officers found both groups perceived Black boys as older than they really were and less innocent than their White counterparts.
The study, “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Blacks were seen as less innocent than Whites and people generally and for every age group older than age 9, Black children and adults were rated as significantly less innocent than White children and adults generally, said the report.
The height, weight and alleged physical strength and appearance of Trayvon Martin, 17, Mike Brown Jr., 18, and even Eric Garner, 43, all came into play when they were described in media reports. In young Tamir’s case, the fact he was 12 and obviously a child did not come into play at all based on the police response. The Essence of Innocence study finding “suggests that Black children may be viewed as adults as soon as 13, with average age overestimations of Black children exceeding four and a half years in some cases.” Meaning a 13-year-old Black child is viewed like a 17-year-old.
“Our findings,” said the report, “suggest that, although most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood, Black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious.”
Cleveland resident Mariah Crenshaw has sons and when she saw the video of police shooting Tamir, her heart sunk. She pictured her children and remembers her sons playing in the park when they were little and playing at home with toy guns.
“Never in my mind did I once think boy toys would get them killed,” she said. She has seen comments posted on social media of people saying that Tamir “deserved it.”
“I can’t understand the mentality of many people who can justify what they saw on that tape. I just can’t conceive it.”
The federal and community response
After a 20-month investigation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Eric Holder announced at a Dec. 4 press conference that the Cleveland Police Department had a history of systematic brutality and incompetence.
Attorney General Holder was joined by members of his staff, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and Cleveland Police Chief Calvin Williams, both of whom are Black, in announcing the findings.
The investigation concluded there is reasonable cause to believe that Cleveland police officers engage in a pattern or practice of unreasonable and in some cases unnecessary force in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, Justice Dept. officials said.
The investigation also concluded the Cleveland Police Department failed to fully and objectively investigate allegations of misconduct, identify and respond to patterns of at-risk behavior and implement effective community policing strategies.
Local activists, clergy and other groups have been meeting and strategizing on what additional steps are needed to address problems that exist between police and Cleveland’s Black residents.
“We need to look at all the options that are available to police across the country that are being used to apprehend people, American citizens whether they are Black or White … instead of using deadly force,” said Ms. Crenshaw. “Deadly force in Cleveland, Ohio has become the only method of apprehending people in this city of African American descent.”
Ms. Crenshaw said her criticisms are not an indictment of police officers because she has family and friends in law enforcement, but she sees the problem of injustice. She is in favor of changing the weapons cops have access to.
Anything that can be put in place in the form of laws or training to make sure police would operate fairly and justly would be helpful, said Mr. Boyd. He is not overly optimistic. Law enforcement and judges function from their personal biases and racism, said Mr. Boyd.
“I don’t care how much training you give these crackers, you’re not going to change their heart, because that’s where it’s at … you can’t legislate people’s hearts,” said Mr. Boyd.
A copy of the Justice Department report on the Cleveland Division of Police is available at www.documentcloud.org/documents/1375050-doc.html
(Follow Final Call Assistant Editor Starla Muhammad on Twitter: @simplystarla23. Follow Final Call writer J.A. Salaam on Twitter: @drjasalaam).