Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
Is the grand jury process stacked in favor of the cop who killed the 12-year-old?
Jaeah LeeOct. 28, 2015 6:00 AM
Tamir Rice's sister and mother at the park where the 12-year-old was gunned down.
On Saturday, October 10, the prosecutor overseeing the Tamir Rice grand jury investigation released two reports authored by independent experts and concluding that Timothy Loehmann, the cop who killed the 12-year-old African American boy in Cleveland last November, acted within the law. The Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Timothy McGinty, knew this was an unusual move to make during grand jury proceedings. "Historically, the norm in most places has been that there's an incident, and then a long investigation shrouded in secrecy, followed by a conclusion that sometimes mystifies large segments of the public," a spokesperson for McGinty's office told Mother Jones regarding the publication of the two reports. "We're trying to break that pattern."
But the reports have sparked outrage from Rice's family and supporters, who say the grand jury investigation amounts to "a charade aimed at whitewashing" and are demanding that a special prosecutor take over the case. Some legal experts suggest that the reports could improperly influence the pool of people serving on the grand jury, who began hearing evidence in recent weeks and will ultimately determine whether Loehmann should face charges. The development adds to a cloud of questions hanging over the case ever since Rice's death almost a year ago—including why Loehmann and his partner who drove the squad car, Frank Garmback, have never spoken to investigators.
"The idea that this is somehow making it more fair and transparent, I think, is disingenuous."
Delores Jones-Brown, a former prosecutor in New Jersey and a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, says it was unusual that McGinty enlisted a Colorado prosecutor and a former FBI agent to analyze the evidence and then release their findings. "I have never seen an incident in which that happened before," she said, adding, "Normally it would be the defense attorney's responsibility to get those kinds of experts."
Tim Young, the director of Ohio's public defenders office, sees McGinty's release of the reports as "a measured attempt to try and reduce potential backlash" if the grand jury decides to not indict Loehmann. "The idea that this is somehow making it more fair and transparent, I think, is disingenuous. They're still going to present this case in a private proceeding that you may or may not get to see the transcript of. We won't know how they present Tamir."
As fatal officer-involved shootings have fueled a nationwide debate about policing and racial injustice in America, prosecutors and grand juries have come under scrutiny. Some prosecutors have taken unconventional steps in response to criticism; after a grand jury declined to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch released the evidence reviewed by jurors in that case. In August, California became the first state to ban the use of grand juries in officer-involved shootings.
Prosecutors are now in a tough position, says Dave Klinger, a former police officer and a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "No matter what happens, the prosecutor is going to get criticized," he says. The use of outside investigators by a prosecutor, he adds, is not unheard of in grand jury proceedings. "The goal in a situation like that is to explain to the grand jurors in detail about things that perhaps the prosecutor really doesn't know him or herself, about police training, practice, or tactics, so that the jurors can have a better understanding of what it is that officers are supposed to do."
The experts who reviewed Loehmann's use of deadly force, Colorado prosecutor S. Lamar Sims and former FBI agent Kim Crawford, emphasized that the circumstances leading up to and immediately following the shooting were not relevant to their findings. "To suggest that Officer Garmback should have stopped the car at another location is to engage in exactly the kind of 'Monday morning quarterbacking' the case law exhorts us to avoid," Sims wrote. Some policing experts have said that Garmback's pulling up to within 10 feet of Rice just seconds before Loehmann shot him was among glaring tactical errors made by the two officers. And neither Sims nor Crawford mentioned the fact that for several minutes following the shooting, Loehmann and Garmback stood around without administering first aid to Rice while he lay bleeding on the ground.
"To say that the actions were constitutional does not [necessarily] relieve the officers of negligence or recklessness," says Jones-Brown. That decision is ultimately up to the prosecutor and the grand jury, she says, adding that a special prosecutor should be appointed. "I'm afraid the damage may have already been done by disseminating these reports."
"My fear is that we'll never know the truth of Tamir Rice."
Klinger agrees that the officers' tactical mistakes warrant further investigation, but argues that they should be addressed in the Rice family's civil lawsuit against them. "We have a very robust civil justice system that is designed to take care of the legal questions about a wrong committed that does not rise to the level of committing a crime." The behavior of the officers after the shooting "was appalling," he adds, "that they are not trained in Cleveland to do a better job in terms of getting appropriate, potentially life-saving medical care."
In June, a Cleveland judge found probable cause to sustain charges against both Loehmann and Garmback, including murder and negligent homicide. Judge Ronald Adrine said his findings were "advisory in nature" and that the ultimate decision to charge the officers was up to the county prosecutor.
According to a report from the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Tuesday, "Cleveland police officers and Cuyahoga County sheriff's deputies have been called in to testify over the previous weeks." But they have not included Loehmann or Garmback, whose attorneys confirmed to Mother Jones that "it is unlikely that either of them will be testifying to the grand jury on this matter."
Young, the Ohio public defender, says the public deserves more transparency when it comes to scrutinizing police shootings. "I don't know if the officer in Michael Brown's case committed a crime or not. The problem is that we won't ever know, we didn't have a public trial. We'll never know what they did in Eric Garner's case. My fear," he adds, "is that we'll never know the truth of Tamir Rice."
Authorities in Richland County, South Carolina, are investigating a video that surfaced Monday showing a uniformed officer aggressively confronting a high school student. Local station WIS-TV reports that county sheriff's deputies are investigating the incident, which took place on Monday at Spring Valley High School, according to school officials. The video, which appears to have been recorded on a cellphone by a classmate, shows a white male officer standing over a black female student sitting at her desk; moments later he grabs the student and flips her on her back. After dragging her across the floor, the officer says, "Hands behind your back—give me your hands." The video has no additional context as to what led to or followed the altercation.
"Parents are heartbroken as this is just another example of the intolerance that continues to be of issue in Richland County School District Two, particularly with families and children of color," a local black parents group wrote in a statement responding to the video.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told WIS-TV that the school resource officer (SRO) was responding to a student who was refusing to leave class. "The student was told she was under arrest for disturbing school and given instructions, which she again refused," Lott said. "The video then shows the student resisting and being arrested by the SRO."
The video is the latest in a series of disturbingly violent altercations involving school cops. As Mother Jones first reported in July, there have been at least 29 incidents in the United States since 2010 in which school-based police officers used questionable force against students in K-12 schools, many of which caused serious injuries, and in one case death. Data on use of force by school cops is lacking even as the number of officers on campus has ballooned over the past two decades, with little training or oversight.
Update, 6:15 p.m. EDT: Here is a statement released by the school district, via local TV reporter Megan Rivers:
Update, October 28, 2015, 1:36 p.m. EDT: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced on Wednesday that the officer in the video, identified as deputy sheriff Ben Fields, was fired from his post. Lott and school district leaders have criticized the violent encounter. Lott said he did not think race played a role in the incident, explaining that the deputy had dated an African American woman for "quite some time." He also said the student in the video should be held responsible for disturbing the classroom, though her behavior did not justify what the deputy did.
A new report reveals multiple errors and hundreds of cases missing from federal data on fatal police shootings.
Jaeah LeeOct. 16, 2015 2:48 PM
Protesters march in San Francisco in December 2014.
A new investigation from the Guardian gives a detailed look at the deep flaws in the FBI's database on fatal police shootings. The inadequacy of the federal data, which is built from information voluntarily reported by police departments, has come into view as the Guardian and the Washington Posthave tracked officer-involved killings in 2015. FBI Director James Comey recently called the federal data "embarrassing and ridiculous," and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch has announced a new program aimed at better tracking civilian deaths at the hands of police.
The Guardian examined the FBI's justifiable homicide data for the decade spanning from 2004 to 2014 and found:
In 2014, only 244—or 1.2 percent—of the nation's estimated 18,000 law enforcement agencies reported a fatal shooting by their officers.
Several high-profile deaths, including those of Eric Garner in New York, and Tamir Rice and John Crawford in Ohio, were not included in the FBI's count, as the police agencies involved did not submit their data for those years or report those incidents to the FBI. The NYPD, for example, did not submit data for any year during this period except for one, in 2006. Still the FBI's count did not match up with the NYPD's own data from that year, which the NYPD publishes in a separate annual report.
The FBI lists 32 ways of classifying the incidents based on the circumstances—but only one denotes killing by a police officer: "felon killed by police." There is no category for cases where an officer killed someone who was not a felon. (See Mother Jones'previousreporting on the FBI's classification of justifiable homicides.)
A rise in the number of police shootings corresponded with a rise in agencies reporting their figures, obscuring any potential trends over the decade reviewed.
The Guardian included a chart showing the lack of reporting annually by states on fatal police shootings. Two of the nation's most populous states, Florida and New York, barely reported any data at all:
A spate of officer-involved killings is provoking reforms. Will they work?
Jaeah LeeOct. 13, 2015 6:00 AM
Police in riot gear confront a man in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 11, 2014.
After a year in which killings of unarmed suspects by the police have become a major national issue, activists, law enforcement experts, and political leaders have all stressed the importance of introducing more and better training for officers. Police departments across the country have begun to re-evaluate how they teach cops to use physical force, defuse tension with suspects, approach the mentally ill, and check their own unconscious biases. But what do we really know about police training as a solution? Will it be effective? Here are some of the key questions:
What specific steps have police departments taken? A recent survey by the DC-based Police Executive Research Forum revealed that the majority of an officer's training on use of force consisted of firearms and defensive tactics. "We spend much less time discussing the importance of deescalation techniques and crisis intervention strategies," Chuck Wexler, the group's executive director, wrote in August. The Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, formed in response to Ferguson and other controversial police shootings, urged that "the need for expanded and more effective training has become critical." Its top recommendations to law enforcement agencies include making classes on crisis intervention mandatory for basic recruits and officers in the field, and forming "training innovation hubs" between universities and police academies.
In 2012, Washington state's police academy introduced cadets to a new curriculum that emphasized trainings in crisis intervention, building social skills, and critical thinking—a shift from its previous boot camp approach. The NYPD is currently retraining its officers on de-escalation, communication, and minimizing use of force. In early September, Cleveland introduced plans to ramp up training that teaches officers how to respond to suspects who may have mental illnesses—a change prompted by the city's recent settlement with the US Department of Justice following a federal investigation into the Cleveland PD.
After the fatal police shooting of Antonio Zambrano-Montes in Pasco, Washington, the DoJ announced in May that it would train Pasco officers for a year in order to "enhance trust and communication between the community and the police department." And following a record number of officer-involved shootings in 2010, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department overhauled its training curriculum, which now includes instruction on implicit bias and "reality-based trainings" focused on appropriate use of force.
How do we know whether these kinds of reforms will help reduce officer-involved shootings? Some departments that have introduced training reforms, such as those in Las Vegas and Maryland's Montgomery County, say the changes have lowered problematic use-of-force incidents. Yet researchers have little data on potential impacts with regard to use of force, mental-health crisis intervention, and building community trust. "We know virtually nothing about the short- or long-term effects associated with police training of any type," Northwestern University political scientist Wesley Skogan wrote in a 2014 paper published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.
In a report commissioned by the National Research Council in 2004, Skogan and others found that while it had long been assumed "that more and better police training leads to improved officer performance," there were "scarcely more than a handful of studies on the effects of training," and that "research on the effects of training content, timing, instructor qualifications, pedagogical methods, dosage, and long-term effects is virtually nonexistent." In the decade since, Skogan says, "there has not been much progress."
The lack of rigorous scientific assessments on police training programs means that in areas like crisis intervention or hostage negotiations, "we're flying by the seat of our pants," says Dave Klinger, a former officer and a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. That can be dangerous for both the officers and the communities they serve, he adds.
Why isn't there more research available on these kinds of training programs? The argument that policing should be rooted in science is nothing new, but translating academic research into practice on the streets is complicated territory. As researchers at the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy explained in a 2012 paper, what works at one department may not work in another. Scientists and police departments might also disagree, they said, on how to measure an agency's effectiveness or define what "good policing" looks like. "The worlds of the practitioner and the scientist operate on vastly different timelines," they wrote, "with police chiefs believing that they need quick solutions, and academics believing that without adequate deliberation, the quality of the science might be compromised."
What does all of this cost? Officers spend hundreds of hours training both in the academy and out in the field, costing an average of $1.3 million per academy, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Municipal police agencies, for example, spent an average of $2.2 million on academy training in 2006, with basic recruit training taking up an average of 883 hours in the classroom and 575 hours in the field, according to the latest available data. Certified state training academies spent an average of $3.6 million per academy in the same year.
Why don't we know more about what training works? Part of the answer is that ultimately it's hard to know whether an officer's behavior during any given scenario was directly affected by training that he or she received. There have also been some "serious methodological limitations" in past research on training, Skogan found in his 2004 report. It's also hard to isolate the effect of training from other factors that could influence an officer, such as his or her workload, stress, or other factors influencing the operations of a police department and its personnel.
Lorie Fridell, a criminologist at the University of South Florida, says she has been thinking about how to better measure racial or other implicit bias in policing since 1999, when she wrote a book on the subject. She says it's been "incredibly challenging" to come up with effective approaches. Fridell runs a training program that teaches officers to recognize and check their implicit bias, and she plans to conduct a controlled study on the effects of the training to determine how an officer's attitude and skills may have changed as a result. But the study won't be able to show how the training affected an officer's behavior on the streets, she explains, because measuring bias in that setting would require pinpointing the motive behind an officer's actions in any given situation.
Almost a year after the boy was shot by a Cleveland police officer, key questions remain.
Jaeah LeeOct. 11, 2015 7:17 PM
Activist Art McCoy holds a photo of Tamir Rice before a 2014 protest march at Cudell Park in Cleveland.
Update, 1:45 p.m. EDT: In the hours since two new investigations into the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice concluded that a Cleveland police officer's actions were "reasonable," outrage has spread on Twitter and protesters have taken to the streets. Some called on authorities to redefine what is legally "reasonable."
Activists in Cleveland and elsewhere saw the reports as a sign that it's unlikely Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann will face criminal charges for his actions. As demonstrations took place in cities such as Cleveland and Oakland, several high-profile figures weighed in:
Sending support to Tamir Rice's loved ones. Too many black families are mourning the loss of a child. We need to change that reality. -H
Meanwhile, a police union attorney for Frank Garmback, the officer who drove the squad car near Rice before Loehmann opened fire, told Mother Jones that Garmback has decided that he will not testify before the grand jury.
Garmback is still considering submitting a written statement to Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty, according to his lawyer Michael Maloney.
"While we are not facing a strict deadline at the moment, it is clear we have to advise the prosecutor of our intentions fairly soon," Maloney said. He declined to comment further on questions about whether Loehmann would testify or submit a statement soon.
Late on Saturday night, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office released conclusions from three additional investigations into the death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a police officer at a Cleveland park last November.
Two of the reports, written by police use-of-force experts, determined that the actions of Cleveland officer Timothy Loehmann, who fatally wounded Rice within a few seconds of arriving at the scene on November 22, were "objectively reasonable" under federal case law and did not violate the Fourth Amendment. A third investigation reconstructed the shooting scene at the Cudell Recreation Center and examined how quickly the police car was moving when it pulled up to Rice.
Here are the key takeaways from the reports, and questions that remain almost a year since Rice's death:
The fact that Rice was a kid, or that his gun turned out to be fake, are "irrelevant" in determining whether Loehmann's actions were reasonable under federal law. According to use of force experts S. Lamar Sims and Kimberly Crawford, the available evidence shows Loehmann could not have known at the time of the shooting that Rice was a boy with a toy gun. Therefore Loehmann acted reasonably—as defined by previous US Supreme Court decisions—when he fired his weapon at Rice, Sims and Crawford concluded. And while key details in the 911 call—that Rice was "probably a juvenile" waving a gun that was "probably fake"—were not relayed to the officers, they "cannot be considered," Crawford wrote.
Whether Loehmann and the officer who drove the squad car, Frank Garmback, used appropriate tactics also fell outside the scope of Sims and Crawford's investigations, they said. Garmback pulled the police vehicle to within several feet of Rice, and Loehmann fired shots within two seconds.
"To suggest that Officer Garmback should have stopped the car at another location is to engage in exactly the kind of 'Monday morning quarterbacking' the case law exhorts us to avoid," Sims wrote. While it could be argued that the officers escalated the situation "by entering the park and stopping their vehicle so close to a potentially armed subject," Crawford added, that speculation has "no place in determining the reasonableness of an officer's use of force."
The reports do not discuss the fact that Loehmann and Garmback did not administer first aid while Rice lay bleeding. Surveillance footage of the incident showed Loehmann and Garmback stood around for about four minutes without attempting to give any medical attention to Rice. When Rice's sister approached, Garmback tackled her to the ground. Later, an FBI agent arrived and began to tend to Rice's wound before an ambulance took him to a hospital. Rice died the next day.
A fundamental principle of policing is that once a threat has been eliminated and a scene secured, an officer's first priority is to aid an injured person, Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina studying policing, told Mother Jones in May. "At that point, the officer and his medical kit might be the only thing between the suspect and death," said Stoughton, who who previously served as a police officer in Florida for five years. "It's not only an ethical requirement, but almost certainly a departmental imperative to do what they can to save the life of the suspect. The failure to do that is really disturbing."
The officers still aren't talking to investigators. Both Loehmann and Garmback have declined to give statements to investigators or the county prosecutor, under the advice of their lawyers. In June, their attorney Michael Maloney told Mother Jones that the officers "have not ruled out the possibility" of providing a written statement to the prosecutor. They have not decided whether they will testify before the grand jury.
It's unclear whether Loehmann will face criminal charges. A total of four investigations have now been made public in the wake of Rice's death, none of which are intended to draw conclusions about whether officer Loehmann should be charged. As county prosecutor Timothy McGinty explains, all reports will be reviewed by a grand jury, which will then determine whether Loehmann will face criminal charges.
The officer who drove the car may face scrutiny, too. Thus far, the investigation into Rice's death has focused on Loehmann, and it remains unclear whether the actions of Garmback will warrant a separate criminal or departmental investigation.
Stoughton, the law enforcement expert, toldMother Jones, "It was a ludicrous way to approach a scene where you've been told that there is a person with a gun who has been aiming it at bystanders. I would expect the officers would park at a safe distance and walk up, using cover and concealment, and try to initiate communication at a distance. That's the 'three Cs' of tactical response."
It's unclear when a grand jury will take up the case. The new documents, along with the initial probe into the shooting led by the county sheriff's office, will be presented to a grand jury as it decides whether to indict Loehmann, McGinty said in Saturday's press release. McGinty's office declined to comment further on the grand jury process. It remains unclear whether a grand jury has been impaneled and when a hearing will take place.