In my column today about the November 2014 shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice at a Cleveland park, I note that it's unclear in the surveillance video of the incident whether the boy's hand moved toward his waistband before Officer Timothy Loehmann fired two rounds at him. But I say "it is indisputable that [Tamir] never produced a weapon." Apparently I spoke too soon, because Loehmann is now disputing that very point, saying in a statement released yesterday that Tamir was "reaching into his waistband" and "pulling the gun out."
That gun, you may recall, was a nonlethal, pellet-firing Airsoft pistol that had alarmed a bystander who called 911. Because the replica bore a strong resemblance to a real gun, whether Tamir was holding it when he was shot is obviously relevant in evaluating Loehmann's reaction. The problem for Loehmann is that his statement, while helpful in justifying his actions, seems inconsistent with what he said before and with what five use-of-force experts gleaned from the video.
As detailed by former Irvine, California, Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Noble in an expert report released on Saturday by lawyers for Tamir's family, two other Cleveland officers and an FBI agent who arrived at the scene soon after the shooting said Loehmann told them Tamir "reached for" or "went for" the replica firearm, not that he was holding it. Ed Tomba, deputy chief of the Cleveland Police Department, did claim Tamir "went into his waistband and pulled out the weapon," but that was before police released the video, which does not seem to show him holding the toy gun as he is shot. Noble notes that two use-of-force experts consulted by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty thought Tamir seemed to be lifting his jacket and reaching for his waist, while a third conceded "the video is grainy and it is unclear—from the video—whether Rice reaches for his gun." Noble adds that "none of the prosecutor's experts claim that Tamir displayed the replica handgun, or that he made any threats toward anyone."
Another expert who prepared a report at the behest of the Rice family, Roger Clark, a former lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, notes that all three of McGinty's experts "appear to blame Tamir by emphasizing how real the toy gun looked without its orange tip." But Clark adds that "since Tamir wasn't holding the gun when the officers pulled up and when Officer Loehmann shot him, how realistic the gun may have looked is irrelevant because Officers Loehmann and Garmback did not assess the gun's appearance at all before Officer Loehmann fired" (emphasis added).
Contrary to all of these accounts (except for Tomba's), Loehmann's statement claims Tamir was holding the toy gun when he was shot. "I saw the weapon in his hands coming out of his waistband," he says. Loehmann also claims Tamir disregarded repeated orders from Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, to put up his hands. As their patrol car pulled up to the gazebo where Tamir was standing, Loehmann says, "I started to open the door and yelled continuously 'show me your hands' as loud as I could. Officer Garmback was also yelling 'show me your hands.'"
As Noble observes, however, "the video revealed there was not sufficient time for Officer Loehmann to have given Tamir any commands, combined with any opportunity to comply with those commands, before the shooting." The windows of the patrol car were rolled up as Garmback drove it into the park, meaning Tamir would not have heard anything Loehmann might have said while still in the vehicle, and Loehmann fired his gun less than two seconds after getting out of the car. Clark concludes "there was no time in those 1.7 seconds for Officers Loehmann or Garmback to have issued any intelligible commands to Tamir, much less for Tamir to respond to any commands."
Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, said Loehmann read his statement to the grand jury considering charges against him and Garmback but did not take questions. Garmback also read a statement to the grand jury, agreeing that "both Ptl. Loehmann and I directed the male to show his hands" and that "the male was pulling" what looked like a real gun "from the right front area of his waistband." Aside from their comments to other officers at the scene, these are the first public statements that Loehmann and Garmback have made about the shooting. Neither officer spoke to internal investigators last year or made statements last June, when McGinty released the evidence that the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department had collected.