The Legal Murder Of Tamir Rice

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It should be increasingly clear that the police officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice will not be tried; and should he be tried, he will not be convicted. The successful prosecution of a police officer for murder almost never happens. It probably won’t happen in the killing of Rice:

Two outside investigators looking into the death of Tamir Rice have concluded that a Cleveland police officer, Tim Loehmann, acted reasonably in deciding last year to shoot when he confronted the 12-year-old boy carrying what turned out to be a replica gun…

“The question is not whether every officer would have reacted the same way,” Kimberly A. Crawford, the retired F.B.I. agent, wrote in her report, which noted that Officer Loehmann had no way of knowing Tamir’s gun was fake. “Rather, the relevant inquiry is whether a reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.”

To be found not guilty of murder, a police officer need not prove that he used lethal violence against a threat, but that he reasonably believed himself to be  threatened. Even in the case of Michael Slager, who shot a fleeing Walter Scott in the back, optimism for a conviction should be tempered:

Slager fired "because he felt threatened," and had no way to know Scott was unarmed because he had not had the chance to pat him down, his lawyer said.

"He sees irrational behavior of a suspect, at that time," Savage said. "He sees a guy who's committed four felonies in the last minute and a half — violently resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, robbing the police officer of his weapon Taser, and using that Taser in attempt to harm him. Four felonies in the last 30-45 seconds."

After he took off running, Scott pivoted, the lawyer said, at which time the officer figured "the logic is that was going for a weapon."

At some point the discussion of police violence will have to move beyond the individual actions of officers to the level of policy. Convicting an officer of murder effectively requires an act of telepathy. As long as this is the standard, then the expectation of justice for a boy like Tamir Rice is little more than a kind of magical thinking.

Perhaps it is necessary to ask why we even have this standard in the first place. This is where my own questions begin: Is our tolerance for the lethal violence of the police rooted in the fact that lethal violence in our society is relatively common? Put differently, murder in America is much more common than in other developed countries. Is this how we have made our peace with that fact? Our world is, in some real sense, more dangerous. In recognition of this, have we basically said to the police, “Do what you will?” And in the case of Stand Your Ground, has this “Do what you will” ethic even extended to the citizenry? And if that is the case, then is there a line that can be drawn from Tamir Rice to Walter Scott to Sandy Hook to Trayvon Martin?