In response to the fatal police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland almost two weeks ago, an officer who works for a precinct of the St. Louis County Police Department posted warnings Thursday on its social media accounts about children playing with toy guns.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar issued an apology after the officer posted a message on the Twitter and Facebook accountsof the St. Louis County Police Department. The message on Twitter read: "Kids will be kids?" followed by a description of the incident on Nov. 22 when a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Rice, who had been playing with a toy “airsoft” gun. A link in the post directed users to the Facebook page of the St. Louis County Police City of Fenton Precinct, a suburb of St. Louis.
"This article is not about this (sic) a boy losing his life, whether this was a justified shooting or, whether the cops acted too fast. This is about the Fenton Precinct making residents aware of a 'hot' topic and learning from this incident so Fenton never loses a child's life," the post read. (The full text of the message is posted below.)
"If you or your children have an Airsoft or pellet gun please sit them down and talk to them about this tragedy. Your children should have rules for 'toy' guns that mirror the rules of a real weapon," the post continued. "Pellet guns and Airsoft guns should not be allowed to be played with throughout the neighborhood, common grounds, or used to threaten or intimidate people."
"If the type of gun is in question by the witness, the Police will respond as though it is a real gun until it can be confirmed one way or the other. Remember if an Airsoft pistol is tucked in your pants like a holster then obviously the orange tip is no longer visible. The police will respond lights and sirens and come to a screeching halt in the area where your child is playing with the gun," the post said later.
Less than two hours after publication, the posts were deleted. St. Louis County Media Relations Officer Shawn McGuire told msnbc he was aware of the post and was "looking into it."
"The intention of the post was to inform citizens about the potential danger of airsoft or pellet guns resembling real guns. However, the post was a misguided communication strategy and was offensive to many people," Chief Belmar said in a statement to msnbc. "I apologize to Tamir's family and anyone who was offended by the post. While the post did not originate from the Chief’s Office and I was unaware of its presence prior to its release, I realize the message was insensitive to Tamir’s family and the sorrow they are currently experiencing."
The police department's social media policy was altered as a result of the two posts, Belmar added.
Surveillance video of the Rice shooting, released last week by authorities at the request of the boy's family, showed police shooting Rice within seconds of 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. The 911 caller also mentioned that the individual was “probably a juvenile” and the firearm was “probably fake.” Rice had been walking back and forth along the sidewalk and waving a toy “airsoft” gun.
Timothy Loehmann, 26, shot Rice outside of the recreation center. He had joined the Cleveland police force in March and was sworn in as a full-time officer in August. Loehmann was deemed emotionally unstable and unfit for duty in a previous small-town police job. The driver of the police cruiser was Frank Garmback, 46, who joined the force in February 2008. Loehmann was his passenger on the day of the fatal shooting.
A grand jury will hear the case after the police department concludes an internal investigation, which is expected by mid-February 2015. Jurors will then decide whether or not to charge the policemen with a crime. The officers were placed on administrative leave following the incident.
The use of deadly force by police has received renewed national attention over the past several months after a string of killings of African-American men by police across the country, which have sparked unrest and protests in many communities. The first such incident occurred in Staten Island, New York, where Eric Garner died in July after being placed in an apparent chokehold by a New York Police Department officer during an arrest for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes. A grand jury decided Wednesday not to indict the cop, Daniel Pantaleo.
At Rice's funeral Wednesday morning, the boy's great-uncle called on the Cleveland community and the entire country to remember Rice by demanding changes to law enforcement policies, including a restructuring of officer training. On Monday, President Barack Obama requested millions of dollars to purchase as many as 50,000 police body cameras to equip law enforcement officials nationwide.