U.S. Attorney Bridget Brennan explained the Justice Department’s December decision to not file federal criminal charges against the officers involved in the killing of Tamir Rice in a public panel discussion this week.
The panel discussion, hosted by the United Way and the Cleveland Chapter of the NAACP, was the first of a series that focuses on the progress of court-mandated reforms in the Cleveland Division of Police.
Brennan, who recently took over as Acting U.S. Attorney of the Northern District of Ohio January 8, describes the Tamir Rice case as “heartbreaking and unfair, frankly, because of what we now know. This was a 12-year-old boy with a toy in a park. It is hard for anybody to wrap their mind around how a situation like that ends up being shot by police.
“The case has been very challenging for the community, the [police] department, the FBI, our office….we put considerable time and resources into answering the question we had to answer which is, ‘was it criminal?’ The law really constrains us in a lot of ways with respect to a civil rights offense, we have to look at whether or not the officers conduct was unreasonable, and also whether or not it was done willfully, with the intent to deprive someone of a constitutional right. When we look at reasonableness, the law says we can only look at what the officers knew at the time force was used. What is learned later, Tamir’s age, the fact that it was a toy gun, that information is not something that we as prosecutors can weigh in terms of determining whether or not we can prove unreasonable use of force, and it’s not something we can present to a jury. Specific instructions tell a jury that they cannot factor after-acquired information to determine whether or not the officer’s use of force was unreasonable.”
A CPD dispatcher was suspended after it was determined she violated protocol by not relaying the 9-1-1 caller’s information questioning that Rice may have just been a child with a toy.
Brennan was asked if there was any chance the case could be re-opened in the future. She says she is not aware of that but would not want to speak for future administrations. “What we can all do,” she says, “is to learn from what happened and use this Consent Decree to try to make sure that what happened that day doesn’t happen again. We were not able to criminally prosecute with respect to Mr. Henderson, or Ms. Williams or Mr. Russell [either], but it doesn’t mean that these incidents haven’t given us a launching pad to really demand change and reform and improve the way policing is done in the city.”
Rice’s mother, Samaria, now working as a police reform and a youth advocate, recently gave her own response to the Justice Department’s decision. She says she is now attempting to pursue state charges against Timothy Loehmann, the now-former Cleveland officer who shot and killed Rice.