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Frustration builds over Tamir Rice case

June 10, 2015

Cleveland activists have made a direct legal appeal for the arrest of two officers involved in the death of Tamir Rice. After Ferguson, many African-Americans don't trust the grand jury system. Spencer Kimball reports.

Tamir Rice von Polizist erschossener Junge in Cleveland USA
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Courtesy Richardson & Kucharski Co., L.P.A.

Last November, a grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager.

A week later, a grand jury in New York City decided not to indict police officer Daniel Pantaleo over the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man. Pantaleo had placed Garner in a chokehold. Unlike the Brown case, the altercation preceding Garner's death had been caught on video.

While the grand juries in Ferguson and New York City were deliberating over whether or not to indict Wilson and Pantaleo, police officers in Cleveland shot dead Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African-American boy playing with a toy pistol. Like in the Garner case, Rice's death was caught on video.

The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office has reportedly completed an investigation into the shooting, which will be submitted to the county prosecutor. A grand jury will then consider the evidence against the two officers involved in Rice's death, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, and decide whether or not to indict them. Loehmann fired the fatal shots.

But activists and supporters of the Rice family have grown frustrated with the process, which has dragged on for more than six months. On Tuesday, they resorted to a rarely used Ohio law that allows private citizens to go around the prosecution and directly ask a court to charge and arrest a suspect.

Cleveland - Junge wird von Polizisten erschossen.
The shooting of 12-year-old Rice was caught on videoImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Just looking at these cases nationally, in Ferguson and New York, the latest move to try and circumvent the grand jury process is just indicative of the overall distrust that is held within the African-American community toward the criminal justice system," Ronnie Dunn, a professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, told DW.

Grand jury system in Ohio

But there's no way to circumvent a grand jury proceeding in the Rice case, according to Lewis Katz, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Under Ohio state law, defendants in felony cases are entitled to a grand jury unless they waive their right, which the officers involved in Rice's death have not done.

The grand jury system was developed in England centuries ago as a way to protect defendants. Community members could consider evidence out of the public eye, preserving the reputation of the accused until a decision to indict was made.

The practice died out in Great Britain and most of its former colonies with the exception of the United States, where it's still commonly used. According to Katz, grand juries these days normally just rubber stamp a prosecutor's recommendation.

"Quite often prosecutors hide behind grand juries to avoid indicting police," Katz told DW.

"I don't think that's the case here. I have a lot of respect for our prosecutor."

Recent police indictments

The prosecutor, Tim McGinty, successfully sought a grand jury indictment against Michael Brelo, the only officer charged in the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. The two unarmed African-Americans were shot 137 times by police after a car chase in 2012. Though indicted, Brelo was ultimately acquitted after his case went to trial.

On Monday, a grand jury in South Carolina indicted Charleston police officer Michael Slager for the shooting death of Walter Scott, another unarmed African-American man. As in the Tamir Rice case, there's a video recording of Scott's death.

"The difference today is that we have videos of these encounters," Katz said. "That's why the dynamic between the police and the community is changing in this country. We're going to go through some tough times. But it is going to change, ultimately for the better."

USA Unruhen in Ferguson Missouri
The string of police shootings has sparked protests in numerous US citiesImage: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Furman

Cleveland powder keg

The Rice case is unfolding in an already tense environment. Last December, the US Justice Department concluded an investigation into the Cleveland Police Department. The investigation found that city law enforcement often used excessive force in violation of people's constitutional rights.

Cleveland police reached a settlement with the Justice Department last month that imposes stricter guidelines for police to follow before they can resort to force. But the news of police reform was tempered by Michael Brelo's acquittal, which sparked protests.

And the stakes may have been raised even higher, according to Dunn, of Cleveland State University. If the court dismisses the direct appeal made by Rice family supporters on Tuesday for the two officers to be charged and arrested, the frustration would only build.

If the grand jury then decides not to indict, or if the police officers are acquitted after going to trial, the sense of injustice could reach a tipping point.

"This Tamir Rice case, this is the one that's going to really be the test for the city as to what the outcome of any protest and verdict might be," Dunn said.