The family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer on November 22 when his pellet gun was allegedly mistaken for a real weapon, filed a wrongful death and civil rights complaint against the city on Friday.
Rice's death, outside the Cudell Recreation Center Park, was caught on tape and has provoked nationwide outrage in the wake of the controversial police-related deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The footage, made public by authorities after the Rice family requested it be released, shows a 911 caller sitting at a picnic table under a gazebo while a boy, later identified as Rice, walks back and forth along a sidewalk. At times, Rice points his “airsoft” gun and also speaks on his cell phone. The caller eventually leaves the area, and Rice appears to sit at a picnic table.
When police responding to the 911 call pull up in front of the gazebo, Rice is walking along the perimeter of the structure. Although the 911 caller told the dispatcher the child's gun was "probably fake," both officers exit the vehicle and quickly draw their firearms. Their gunshots struck Rice in his torso and he died early Sunday from his wounds.
According to Police Deputy Chief Edward Tomba, the officers drove onto the grass with their windows down and demanded three times that Rice show his hands. Tomba did not confirm whether there was additional conversation between Rice and his shooters. Both officers have since been placed on administrative leave, which is in keeping with the police division’s standard practices.
“Had the defendant officers properly approached Tamir and properly investigated his possession of the replica gun they would undoubtedly have determined … that the gun was fake and that the subject was a juvenile,” the Rice family's complaint argues.
The Rice estate's complaint also names Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, the two policemen involved in the shooting. The suit claims that the City of Cleveland “failed to secure and read” Loehmann’s personnel file from a previous position, where he had been deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty. A spokesman for the City of Cleveland told NBC News that the city had not yet seen the suit as of Friday and declined to comment.
Their case comes just one day after the U.S. Department of Justice released data from a two-year investigation of the tactics of the Cleveland police force.
Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the department in harsh terms Thursday. “We have determined that there is reasonable cause to believe that the Cleveland Division of Public Police engages in a pattern and practice of using excessive force,” Holder said. The actions, he said, were the result of systemic deficiencies, such as inadequate training and equipment, ineffective policies and poor engagement with the community.
Meanwhile, President Obama this week unveiled a new plan to spend several hundred million dollars to increase the use of body cams by police nationwide. Many civil rights groups hailed the initiative as a positive move to help establish more trust between communities of color and law enforcement, although the value of the program has been called into question following the decision of a grand jury not to indict the officer involved in Garner's death, which was fully captured by a cell phone video.
“We are committed to moving forward together, here in Cleveland and throughout the nation,” Holder said Thursday. “We have a great deal of work to do, but this announcement, I think, marks an important first step.”
Rice was buried on Wednesday after an emotional funeral where his great-uncle Michael Petty delivered impassioned remarks about why the public can't allow his nephew to die in vain.
“Tamir can no longer speak for himself. This is why Tamir must live through us. We must now be his voice,” Petty said from the pulpit of Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Cleveland. “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.”
Additional reporting by Michele Richinick