Cleveland, We Have a Problem

Scene via video camera just as Tamir Rice was shot by police.
Scene via video camera just as Tamir Rice was shot by police.

Does what police do in one city affect all police?

Unfortunately, yes!

I learned that in my first year as a police officer.

It was 1961 and a number of police officers had been arrested for being part of an organized, on-duty burglary ring. When an honest officer stepped forward to “blow the whistle,” this is what the chief did (it comes from my book, “Arrested Development):”

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“Upon listening to the officer, the chief (not believing him) sent him to see a psychiatrist instead of launching an investigation. The chief wasn’t suspicious of the facts reported to him, but of the officer’s mental stability. The psychiatrist, however, reported back to the chief that he believed the officer. He wasn’t lying nor was he mentally ill. It was then, and only then, that the Denver Police Department began an investigation.

“The investigation, nevertheless, took almost a year… There was a tremendous public outcry. And after being severely criticized for his laxity, the chief resigned. The greatest loss, however, wasn’t the events themselves as much as the loss of trust that the citizens of Denver had in their police.

“For many years afterwards, every Denver police officer has had to live with this shameful blemish… At the same time, a thousand miles away in Edina [where I was working as a beat officer], I also heard these kinds of comments from some people I arrested—was I one of those cop burglars? At the time, I felt the shame those Denver officers caused all of us who wore a badge. Denver wasn’t as far away as I thought—bad cops impact all cops.

“Throughout my career I learned that without effective oversight, adequate salaries, and high public expectations, police will slide backwards—because left alone, isolated, underpaid, and with low public expectations, these police won’t be the kind of people we want to protect us and our way of life.”

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Now to the present time: here are some excerpts from a recent article in “The New York Times”” covering the shooting in Cleveland of Tamir Rice, a black 12-year-old. (This incident has been linked with fatal police encounters in Ferguson and Staten Island.)

While I have been criticized in the past for dwelling on a few bad cops in a big system, I have to tell you (if you don’t already know this) what one police officer does inappropriately or illegally impacts every other officer; it may not be fair, but that’s the way it is and always has been.

With regard to police in our nation, it’s not enough to have small pockets of trust — it must be system-wide.

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The Tamir Rice Shooting

“Because of multiple layers in Cleveland’s 911 system, crucial information from the initial call about ‘a guy in here with a pistol’ was never relayed to the responding police officers, including the caller’s caveats that the gun was ‘probably fake’ and that the wielder was ‘probably a juvenile.’

“What the officers, Frank Garmback and his rookie partner, Tim Loehmann, did hear from a dispatcher was, ‘We have a Code 1,’ the department’s highest level of urgency. “When the officers raced into action, they took a shortcut that pointed their squad car straight into the park, pulling up so close to Tamir that it made it difficult to take cover, or to use verbal persuasion or other tactics suggested by the department’s use-of-force policy.

“Within two seconds of the car’s arrival, Officer Loehmann shot Tamir in the abdomen from point-blank range, raising doubts that he could have warned the boy three times to raise his hands, as the police later claimed.

“And when Tamir’s 14-year-old sister came running up minutes later, the officers, who are white, tackled her to the ground and put her in handcuffs, intensifying later public outrage about the boy’s death. When his distraught mother arrived, the officers also threatened to arrest her unless she calmed down, the mother, Samaria Rice, said.

“Officers Garmback and Loehmann did not check Tamir’s vital signs or perform first aid in the minutes after he was shot. But Officer Garmback frantically requested an emergency medical team at least seven times, urging the dispatcher to ‘step it up’ and to send medical workers from a fire station a block away. It would be eight minutes before they arrived.

“The shooting fit into a broader history of dysfunction at the Cleveland Division of Police. Two weeks after Tamir’s death, the Justice Department released a scathing report accusing the department of a pattern of excessive force for which officers were rarely disciplined, and pressed the department to accept a federal monitor. Just a year before, in 2013, an investigation by the state attorney general found ‘systemic failure’ in the department.

“It also highlighted shortcomings in the department’s vetting process for recruits. Police records show that Officer Loehmann was hired without a review of his file at a previous department, where he resigned after suffering a ‘dangerous loss of composure’ during firearms training…

“Episodes of abuse continued to surface. In 2011, a helicopter video captured police officers kicking Edward Henderson in the head even though he was spread-eagled on the ground. None of the officers admitted to wrongdoing, and none were fired, though the video showed them ‘kicking his head’… a prominent civil rights lawyer… won a $600,000 settlement for Mr. Henderson, who suffered a broken facial bone…

“Nearly two years after the assault on Mr. Henderson, more than 60 police cruisers and one-third of the city’s on-duty force engaged in a high-speed chase after officers mistook a car’s backfiring for gunfire. It ended when officers killed the two unarmed occupants by firing 137 rounds into their vehicle…

“In the weeks since Tamir’s death, the city and its police department have come under mounting pressure to explain not only the shooting, but also its aftermath, with the officers failing to provide first aid as Tamir lay bleeding. Not until an F.B.I. agent who happened to be nearby arrived four minutes after the shooting did anyone tend to the boy…

“Ms. Rice [Tamir’s mother], 38, is awaiting explanations, and an apology. ‘Nobody has come to knock on my door and told me what happened,’ she said. ‘Somebody has to be held accountable.’”

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These are the behaviors that many in America are questioning.  Could that happen in my neighborhood? Could I imagine police in my city acting like this? Probably not depending on where you live, your race, or your socio-economic status. Two things immediately rise up that are not too unlike the incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island. They have to do with tactics and sensitivity.

  1. The questionable tactical approach used by the officers upon receiving the call, “man with a gun.”
  2. The failure to provide emergency first aid to the boy immediately after the shooting.
  3. The conduct of the officers on the scene failing to comfort the boy’s sister and, instead, placing her in handcuffs.
  4. The failure to give comfort to Tamir’s mother, who was at the scene and, instead, threaten to arrest her in her grief and then not apologize for what was, at best, a tragic accident, gives much credibility to the question, “Do black lives matter?”

How often does this happen? Probably not very often in most cities.

How often does it happen in poor, black communities? More often than it should.

[You can read the entire article by Shaila Dewan and Richard A. Oppel Jr. at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/23/us/in-tamir-rice-shooting-in-cleveland-many-errors-by-police-then-a-fatal-one.html.%5D