WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has said it will not reopen the federal investigation into the 2014 death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot to death by Cleveland police, notifying Tamir's mother after she had participated in a federal training event for state prosecutors on investigating police misconduct cases.
Attorneys for Tamir's mother Samaria sent four letters to top officials in the Justice Department and met with them last October in the hope of renewing federal interest in her son's death, and again in December. One of the letters was signed by 50 scholars on constitutional, criminal and civil rights law who wrote that they believed the case must be scrutinized.
The decision comes as the Justice Department is being criticized by civil rights groups over a proposed plea deal on federal hate crimes charges in Georgia with the white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black, that burst into the spotlight after a judge rejected the agreement for one of the men. Attorney General Merrick Garland has promised to refocus the department’s priorities around civil rights and police reform.
Kristin Clarke, the head of the department's Civil Rights Division, wrote that the 2020 decision not to charge the officers stood. She said in her letter to Tamir's family that “by no means should you view the department's 2020 decision as an exoneration” of the police officer's actions.
The Cleveland police department remains under court-ordered supervision after the Justice Department did an 18-month investigation and announced in December 2014 that officers had engaged in a pattern and practice of using excessive force and violating people’s civil rights.
Rice, who was Black, was playing with a pellet gun outside a recreation center in Cleveland on Nov. 22, 2014, when he was shot and killed by Officer Timothy Loehmann seconds after Loehmann and his partner, Officer Frank Garmback, arrived. The white officers had been dispatched to the recreation center after a man drinking beer and waiting for a bus called 911 to report that a “guy” was pointing a gun at people. The caller told a 911 dispatcher that it was probably a juvenile and the gun might be “fake,” though that information was never relayed to the officers.
In late 2020, federal prosecutors said they would not bring charges against the two police officers involved, saying video of the shooting was of too poor a quality for them to conclusively establish what had happened. There were no other prosecutions in the case. In December 2015, a grand jury declined to bring criminal charges against the officers.
But the family asked the Biden administration to take a fresh look.
To bring federal civil rights charges in cases like these, the Justice Department must prove that an officer’s actions willfully broke the law and are not simply the result of a mistake, negligence or bad judgment. It has been a consistently tough burden for federal prosecutors to meet across both Democratic and Republican administrations, with the Justice Department declining criminal charges against police officers in other high-profile cases in recent years, including in the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
In Rice’s case, the Justice Department said poor-quality surveillance video recorded in the area where the shooting took place prevented prosecutors from being able to conclusively determine whether Rice was or was not reaching for his toy gun just prior to being shot. The two officers who were investigated told authorities soon after the shooting that Rice was reaching for the gun prior to being shot and was given multiple commands to show his hands. Loehmann was later fired, Garmback was suspended.
In their letter, the legal scholars wrote that there was wiggle room in the federal statute and they believed the facts of the case weighed heavily in favor of opening a federal grand jury into the shooting. They said they believed there was sufficient evidence to show the officers acted willfully to violate Tamir's civil rights.
“Curing a defective state process — in this case, one that appears to have been impermissibly slanted to protect local white law enforcement officials from accountability in the shooting death of a young black child — is consistent with the fundamental purpose of the federal civil rights laws and squarely within the mandate of the DOJ,” they wrote.
Clarke, in her letter, said the decision was made by career prosecutors who did so solely on the facts of the law and without political influence. She thanked Samaria Rice for participating in their training for state Attorneys General offices around the country on how to better prosecute misconduct.
“We know that Tamir Rice's death was a tragic loss and we continue to hold Ms. Rice, her family and the community at large in our thoughts," Clarke wrote. “Please know that we remain committed to doing all that we can to promote policing accountability and reform.”