There are also legal protections: In Graham v. Connor, the Supreme Court ruled that events “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” Finally, even when the facts seem clear-cut, the law grants police wide latitude. Although many people who watched dash-cam footage of Bland’s arrest were horrified by Trooper Brian Encinia’s conduct, police experts who reviewed the footage, including some who criticized Encinia’s judgment in no uncertain terms, generally felt he had acted within his legal authority. Many departments employ “use-of-force matrices,” which detail what steps an officer may take during an incident, in some cases giving them the right to use more aggressive action than might be necessary or seem justified to an outside observer.
This was particularly apparent in the Rice case. The boy was shot by an Officer Timothy Loehmann just seconds after he arrived on the scene, sent by a dispatcher who told him there was a report of a man pulling out a gun and pointing it at people. Surveillance footage of the death galvanized and appalled the nation. The 12-year-old being gunned down by the officer so abruptly seemed to exemplify overuse of deadly force, while the ensuing events—Rice’s sister was prevented from reaching him, and officers did little to save his life—clinched the case as a signal injustice. As more information emerged about Loehmann, including his abbreviated, troubled career with another Ohio police department, there seemed to be widespread recognition that he shouldn’t have been wearing a badge and that he had acted inappropriately when he shot Rice.
The problem is that although Loehmann’s actions may have seemed obviously inappropriate to a layman, that doesn’t mean that they actually violated the law. Three independent reports, commissioned by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty all found that the Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback had acted within proper protocols and rules for officers. (One report used particularly unfortunate and offensive language, likening Rice’s loss of life to the potential end of Loehmann’s career.) The grand jury’s decision not to indict is simply the latest evidence that no statutory crime may have been committed.
In announcing the grand jury’s decision, McGinty made that argument: What happened was terrible, but I can’t prove it was a crime. “The state must be able to show that the officers acted outside the constitutional boundaries set forth by the Supreme Court of these United States,” he said, and while Rice’s death was a “tragedy,” McGinty said, “it was not, by the law that binds us, a crime.”
That isn’t to say that McGinty couldn’t have procured an indictment—if not necessarily a conviction—if he’d taken a more aggressive strategy. The DA has come in for harsh criticism throughout the case. He took an extremely long time to bring the case before a grand jury—so long, in fact, that Rice’s family and activists dredged up an obscure Ohio law to get a municipal judge to issue at warrant for the officers, circumventing the McGinty’s process. (They received an unsatisfying split decision: A judge ruled that there was probable cause to arrest the officers, but that the law did not actually authorize him to issue warrants.)