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Police Use of Force Expert Witness Reports Suggest No Prosecution for Officer in Tamir Rice Shooting

Expert reports submitted to prosecutors in Cuyahoga County suggests that a Cleveland police officer will not be charged in fatal shooting of a 12-year-old black boy at a recreation center last November.  The expert reports, which were made public last week, do not represent a final decision in the investigation, but the implication that prosecutors believe the officer acted reasonably created a wave of disappointment among advocates for police prosecution in fatal shootings.

Cleveland Officer Not Prosecuted for Fatal Shooting of Tamir Rice

On November 22nd, 2014 Cleveland police officer Tim Loehmann – a rookie on the force – responded to a 911 call regarding a black youth who appeared to be armed in a public park.  The youth was 12-year-old Tamir Rice who was spending his afternoon playing with a toy gun that looked realistic enough to prompt a call to the police and aggressive action from Officer Loehmann mere seconds after he arrived.  Within two seconds of Loehmann and his partner Frank Garmback pulling up to the gazebo where Rice was sitting, Loehmann had fired a point blank gun shot into the boy’s abdomen.  Although the officers frantically called for emergency vehicles, Rice’s wound was fatal and the boy died before medical aid arrived.

During the 10 months since the shootings, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office has received intense pressure to arrest and charge Loehmann for his role in the shooting, which many critics argued was evidence of a broad problem of overly violent behavior instigated by Cleveland police officers.  For his part, Loehmann claimed that he believed the replica air pistol that Rice was playing with was a real gun, and he followed department procedure to warn the boy to put his hands up before Loehmann deployed his weapon.  Loehmann also did not receive information about the details of the 911 call during which the caller told dispatch operators that the gun was “probably a toy.”

Despite Loehmann’s claims, members of Tamir Rice’s family and advocates for police accountability have actively pressed for the officer’s arrest and prosecution.  Demonstrations and protests have been accompanied by national commentary and debate, including a highly critical review of Cleveland police tactics submitted by the Justice Department.  After several months of investigation, prosecutors released two expert witness reviews of the Tamir Rice shooting that seem to affirm Loehmann’s claim that he acted reasonably and within department guidelines.

Expert Witness Reports Support Police Action in Tamir Rice Shooting

As part of the investigation into Rice’s tragic shooting, Cuyahoga prosecutors commissioned two independent expert witness reports to evaluate the incident and comment on the reasonableness of Loehmann’s behavior as an officer approaching the scene.  One of the experts is a retired FBI agent and the other is a prosecutor in Colorado, and both reports suggested that the incident – however tragic – was not clearly demonstrative of excessive use of police force.

Kimberly Crawford, a retired FBI agent who is an expert in police tactics, wrote that Officer Loehmann could not be expected to recognize Tamir’s gun was fake, and stated that in order to properly evaluate the officer’s behavior prosecutors must ask if a “reasonable officer, confronting the exact same scenario under identical conditions could have concluded that deadly force was necessary.”  Citing the relevant federal legal standard and the information that Officers Garmback and Loehmann were operating under, Crawford concluded her analysis by writing, “In light of my training and experience, it is my conclusion that Officer Loehmann’s use of deadly force falls within the realm of reasonableness under the dictates of the Fourth Amendment.”

Crawford’s expert opinion was echoed by another expert in police tactics, Colorado prosecutor S. Lamar Sims who similarly found that Loehmann used reasonable force.  According to Sims’s expert report, Loehmann had every reason to believe that he was responding to a call about teenage to adult male carrying a real gun, and when he saw Tamir Rice with an authentic looking toy pistol, his immediate response to a threat – even if incorrect in retrospect – was reasonable.  After reviewing the facts of the situation, the life-like appearance of the gun, and the information Officer Loehmann was given from the 911 call, Sims concluded his letter by writing, “There can be no doubt that Rice’s death was tragic and, indeed, when one considers his age, heartbreaking.  However … Officer Loehmann’s belief that Rice posed a threat of serious physical harm or death was objectively reasonable as was his response to that perceived threat.”

Tamir Rice Family and Supporters Disheartened by Expert Witness Reports

Although the Cuyahoga prosecutor office told the press that they are not reaching conclusions based solely on the expert witness reports, attorneys for the Rice family released a statement expressing the family’s concern that there will not be a criminal prosecution. Prosecutors have indicated the case will still go to a grand jury to determine charges, but Jonathan S. Abady, an attorney for the Rice family, said in the statement that not enough is being done.

Abady wrote, “Prosecutors exercise substantial influence over the grand jury process and whether an indictment will issue or not. The video footage and other evidence readily available from the outset made clear that this was a completely unreasonable use of deadly force against Tamir.”  Nothing has been decided yet, but if the two police use of force expert reports carry substantial weight, then Officer Loehmann may avoid prosecution for the shooting.

Police Use of Force Expert Witnesses Debate Interrogation Tactics

Two conflicting use of force experts testified in the trial of a former Milwaukee detective who stands accused of assault for a violent confrontation with a suspect during an interrogation.  The trial of Rodolfo Gomez, Jr. will turn on whether jurors determine the former officer was justified in punching and physically subduing a suspect who became angry during a tense questioning session, and both sides called experts to directly argue the crucial point.

Milwaukee Detective Charged with Prisoner Abuse

In August, 2013, Gomez was interrogating Milwaukee resident Deron Love who was accused of fatally abusing his infant son.  During the questioning, Love had one of his arms handcuffed to the table, but the two men nonetheless engaged in an increasingly heated exchange throughout the session.  Video evidence presented during trial showed Love standing up to shout at Gomez, and the detective responding by punching the suspect in the face, forcing Love into a corner, and punching and kneeing him a few more times before leaving the room.

According to Gomez, he forgot that Love was handcuffed to the table and was responding to a legitimate threat of potential violence from a suspect who was bigger and stronger than him.  Gomez stated that Love refused to comply with an order to sit back down, creating the necessity for him to physically neutralize the suspect before the interrogation got further out of hand.  Gomez testified that he did not intend to use force against Love, but was forced into the situation by Love’s outburst.

Love, who was not seriously injured by Gomez, was acquitted of all charges in the death of his infant after a trial in September of last year.  As a result of the incident, Gomez was immediately suspended and later fired from the Milwaukee police force before being formally tried with two felony charges – misconduct in office and abuse of a prisoner.

Police Use of Force Experts Testify During Former Officer Trial

Prosecutors and defense attorneys called expert witnesses to testify about whether or not former Milwaukee detective Rodolfo Gomez, Jr. used appropriate force during his interrogation of a suspect in August of 2013.  Prosecutors called Lt. James MacGillis, who trains the Milwaukee police department in appropriate use of force, who testified that jurors should examine Gomez’s actions on the whole rather than at an individual level.  According to MacGillis, some of the punches and kicks against Love may be justified when analyzed alone, but the overall interaction was evident of excessive and unlawful use of force.

Defense expert witness Robert Willis took the opposite approach, and broke down the interaction frame by frame to explain that at each point Detective Gomez was justified in responding to an unruly and potentially threatening suspect.  According to Willis, a handful of the supposed punches that Gomez threw were actually attempts at openhanded grabs that missed their mark – indicating that the former officer was trying to subdue Love rather than attack him.  Willis counted only three punches and one knee strike, and testified that all were within Gomez’s authority to try to control a suspect who had just jumped up and angrily shouted at him.

The trial will likely conclude this week, but the expert witnesses testifying to Gomez’s use of force may get another crack at the case due to the civil lawsuit that Love filed against Gomez following the incident.