The great-uncle of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was fatally shot by a police officer earlier this month at a park in Cleveland, Ohio, called on his community and the entire country to remember his nephew by demanding changes to law enforcement policies.
"Tamir can no longer speak for himself. This is why Tamir must live through us. We must now be his voice," Michael Petty said Wednesday morning during the child's funeral. "Through us, Tamir will be heard from the grave. Through us, Tamir will prevent further senseless shootings … not only in Cleveland, but in this nation." He opened his speech by mentioning that his nephew will miss out on typical life events, including attending prom, driving a car, graduating from high school, entering college, and marrying a wife and having children.
"We must now be his advocate for change and reform. Through peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and legislation, Tamir will be heard," he added.
At least 200 people, including elected officials and dozens of pastors, attended the hour-long service, held at Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland. Many of the mourners wore white T-shirts decorated with images of the boy and the words, "R.I.P. Tamir." Large photographs of the smiling child and multiple wreaths adorned with bright blue ribbons lined the front of the altar. His parents, Samaria Rice and Leonard Warner, sat in the first pew with their daughters. Senior Pastor C. Jay Matthews prayed for safety in the city, where he said children should be allowed to play freely.
The surveillance video released by authorities last week depicted two police officers shooting Rice within seconds after arriving at the Cudell Recreation Center on Nov. 22. The officers were responding to a 911 call in which a person sitting at a picnic table under a nearby gazebo said he saw "a guy in here with a pistol" who kept pulling the gun in and out of his waistband. He also mentioned the individual was "probably a juvenile" and the firearm was "probably fake." The boy had been walking back and forth along the sidewalk and waving a toy "airsoft" gun.
The caller left the area before police arrived. Immediately after the cruiser pulled up to the edge of the gazebo — within feet of Tamir — both officers exited the vehicle and drew their firearms. The gunshots struck Rice in his torso. He died the next day at MetroHealth Medical Center.
"Through peaceful protest, civil disobedience, and legislation, Tamir will be heard."'
Tamir was a sixth-grader at Marion C. Seltzer Elementary School in Cleveland. At the funeral, teacher Carletta Goodwin spoke about Rice, who she first met in September, and mentioned that her current students continue to speak about the boy with "fond memories."
"It was very visible — not only was he well liked — but Tamir knew a lot of students," she said. "He would laugh and talk with students he didn't even know." She added that he loved to draw, play basketball, and help his classmates. He never missed a day of school, she said.
During his address to the church, Petty called for the restructuring of officer training. Law enforcement authorities, he said, are public servants who "don't have a license to kill." It's "not an issue of black and white, but an issue of right and wrong," he added.
Timothy Loehmann, 26, reportedly shot Rice outside of the recreation center. He had joined the police force in March and was sworn-in as a full-time officer in August.
Last week, police identified the driver of the cruiser as Frank Garmback, 46, who joined the Cleveland force in February 2008. Loehmann was his passenger on the day of the fatal shooting. Video footage revealed that both men left the vehicle immediately upon driving to the gazebo. Authorities said the responding officers drove onto the grass with their windows down, and gave three commands to "show your hands." They haven't elaborated on additional dialogue between the officers and Rice because of the ongoing investigation into the use of deadly force.
Police initially declined to release the surveillance footage, citing the recorded evidence was part of their investigation, as well as their wish to be sensitive to the family, community, and officers. But the boy's parents requested officials present the video to the public. All evidence will be handed over to a grand jury once an internal investigation is complete, which is expected by Feb. 22, 2015. Jurors will then decide whether or not to indict the policemen with criminal charges. They were both placed on administrative leave following the incident.
The Rice family asked that the community remain calm in the wake of other recent fatal police shootings. A St. Louis County grand jury last week decided not to indict Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson in the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Outrage about the outcome spread from coast to coast across the country, as hundreds of protesters marched and blocked streets in metropolitan areas including Cleveland, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.
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The use of deadly force by police also received renewed national attention after a long string of tragedies in other U.S. cities. A New York Police Department officer in July apparently choked Eric Garner to death after accosting him on a Staten Island street corner for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. The grand jury on Wednesday decided not to indict the officer.
Also in New York City, a novice officer fatally shot a 28-year-old man in a Brooklyn stairwell last month in what authorities said appeared to be an accidental discharge. Two other NYPD officers are under criminal investigation after being caught on surveillance video pistol-whipping a teenage marijuana suspect in August.
The issue also recently made headlines in South Carolina, Ohio, and Utah.
The various incidents have fueled a growing movement calling for justice and broad reforms to law enforcement. This week, President Barack Obama requested $263 million, which will pay in part for police body cameras nationwide. The federal initiative will fund police equipment and training for officers on how to use the gear properly.