Cameras Didn’t Save Tamir Rice, Eric Garner

A mourner looks at a program during the funeral service for Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio.
A mourner looks at a program during the funeral service for Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio. –REUTERS

It seems many Americans think recent policing issues can be remedied with body cameras.

On November 22, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot to death by police officers in Cleveland, Ohio. According to the police involved, they approached Rice and ordered him to put his hands up, at which time Rice reached toward his waistband and grasped a gun. Officer Timothy Loehmann fired two shots, one of which fatally struck the boy in the torso.

A surveillance video of the shooting was released four days later. Rice can be seen walking around the park, occasionally pointing what appears to be his toy gun, talking on a cellular phone, and stopping to sit in a gazebo. The officers pull up beside the gazebo, shooting and killing Rice within two seconds of exiting the vehicle. The video does not support the claim that Rice reached for his waist.

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Boston.com reached out to police departments in Durham, North Carolina, Newark, New Jersey and Oakland, California, to discuss standard operating procedure for calls involving individuals with firearms in public spaces.

The uniformity of responses lends one to wondering how we got here as a nation.

According to Officer Frank Roberston of the New Orleans Police Department, “those calls are handled with ample officers and manpower to get to the situation, since it’s considered a ‘hot call’, calls taken with priority.’’ Officers are trained extensively on how to deal with these hot calls. They are called first to assess whether a situation can be de-escalated. “We know it’s a threat to public safety, since there’s a gun involved,’’ said Robertson, “but can we de-escalate?’’

De-escalation, however, is out when the lives of officers or civilians are threatened. “If they aim a weapon at an officer, if they point the gun at them, we [train officers] to use lethal force.’’

Race, according to a Durham Police Department spokesperson, is not a factor. “Is it something dispatchers would ask? Of course, we need it for [an] accurate description.’’ But beyond its inclusion among questions about “clothing, tattoos, glasses, or hair,’’ race “doesn’t factor into how [officers] go forth at all.’’

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While states undoubtedly differ in some aspects, police hiring standards and policing practices are extremely similar from state to state.

Since these responses are so uniform, and since many citizens would be quick to seize upon differences in treatment by police along racial lines, it doesn’t take a logical leap to assume that the practices outlined by representatives from these random three would hold nationwide.

And yet, we seem to have a need for body cameras.

Cases similar to those of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice continue to sprout up accross the country. Police are trained to de-escalate situations like these. If standard operating procedure is taught to police in the way it was relayed to us, why do we need body cameras?

Eric Garner was 43 years old on July 17. At 6’3’’ and 350 pounds, friends had described him as a “neighborhood peacemaker.’’ He had six children, and was out on bail for selling untaxed cigarettes without a license and marijuana possession.

After being approached by a plain clothes officer in front of a beauty supply store and expressing his frustration over constant run-ins with officers, Garner was put in an illegal chokehold.

Video was taken, from a cellular phone, not a body camera. Garner can be seen stating his inability to breathe nearly a dozen times. He died minutes later. His death was ruled a homicide by the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. On December 3, it was announced that a grand jury decided not to indict the officer who killed him.

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How would a body camera have kept Eric Garner alive?

Also on December 3, the city of Independence, Ohio, released their personnel file of Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland officer who shot and killed Tamir Rice. He resigned from the force, after he was told the department was beginning a disciplinary process.

Files show that Loehmann, hired in Independence in July of 2012, grew distracted and weepy during a state range qualification course. He would not communicate clear thoughts, and his handgun performance was dismal. A deputy chief stressed his belief that Loehmann failed to show the maturity to work at the department, nor did he exhibit the ability “to manage personal stress.’’ The same deputy chief added that he did not believe “time, nor training’’ would correct his shortcomings.

He got a badge and a gun––in a city more than 40 times larger than Independence––in March of 2014. According to his father, he wanted “more action.’’

How would a body camera have affected this hiring process?

The problem with America’s policing problem is not that we lack eyes and ears on the street. The problem with America’s policing is not that non-police lack the ability to carry themselves in a manner that rids us of the need for police. The problem with America’s policing problem is that America’s police, by and large, refuse to admit to a problem.

The majority of police do not kill fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters with little consequence. The majority of them do their job at least well enough to avoid scorn, and many of them do it better. But, in the same way the conversation surrounding the untimely death of a black citizen inevitably shifts towards the black community’s failure to handle black-on-black crime (even though all crime is local), we need to ask why the police community has failed to rise to the occasion and address its problem with harassing, abusing, and killing American citizens. Consider for a moment that between 2000 and 2010, the Catholic Church considered sexual abuse allegations against 3,000 priests. It took three more years before a Pope condemned the acts with fervor normally reserved for birth control. If we set the bar at 3,000 plus three years, consider that the lack of numbers kept on extrajudicial killings would make our best guess at when America stands to meet the requirement set forth by the church just that, a guess.

The rapid militarization of police has made what was ostensibly a minority problem an American problem. And police who object to the injustice carried out at the hands of their fellow police officers should step up to the plate and demand lasting change, or grow comfortable being looked upon by many––black, white and otherwise––as the enemy. The fact that the majority of police are comfortable remaining silent as this continues shows the system not as a few bad apples spoiling the bunch, but as apples in one rotting barrel.

But every police force is made up of American citizens. A problem with America’s police, then, is little more than a smaller iteration of larger American problems.

America’s problem with black citizens is that it hates them. There is no other way to explain the actions of the self-professed land of the free. Housing discrimination, subpar public education, and a reluctance to overhaul sentencing practices after Emmett Till, Rodney King, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carey, Yvette Smith, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Tarika Wilson (and her one-year-old son), Eleanor Bumpurs, seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones, and hundreds of others, cannot be explained any other way.

It seems we as a nation would rather discuss cameras than take a look in the mirror.

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