CLEVELAND — A group of activists, clergy and attorneys went to court Tuesday to try to get two white police officers charged in the fatal shooting of a black 12-year-old boy holding a pellet gun, but a legal expert and even the attorneys pushing for the action say that the case must go through a grand jury to obtain a felony indictment against the officers.
The group filed affidavits in Cleveland Municipal Court asking that a judge rule there is probable cause to charge and arrest the officers in the Nov. 22 death of Tamir Rice outside a recreation center. Tamir was shot within two seconds of a police cruiser skidding to a stop near him.
The filing is based on an obscure section of Ohio law that allows private citizens who are aware of criminal activity to seek charges in court. A Cleveland law school professor said Tuesday that the group’s effort does not “substitute for the grand jury.”
Lewis Katz of the Case Western Reserve University Law School said that while he understands the frustration and impatience of Tamir’s family and others, the court filing is more about making headlines than the pursuit of justice. Charging the officers, he said, would be more symbolic than substantive. If the officers were arrested, Katz said, it’s likely they’d be quickly freed on bond.
“It would not be a meaningful victory,” Katz said.
Group members held a news conference in front of the Cuyahoga County Justice Center that focused on what they perceive as delays in prosecuting Tamir’s case and long-existing problems of blacks and minorities receiving unequal, abusive and sometimes deadly treatment from police, and how officers largely go unpunished when they kill or maim someone. Several speakers questioned whether rookie patrolman Timothy Loehmann would have shot Tamir had the child been white.
Loehmann and partner Frank Garmback, who was driving the cruiser, were responding to a 911 call about someone pointing and waving a gun on a playground outside the recreation center. The caller said it was scaring him, but conceded that the gun could be a toy.
“We’re saying there’s enough probable cause to charge them with a crime that we’ve identified,” Cleveland civil rights attorney and NAACP official Michael Nelson said earlier Tuesday. Charges against Loehmann and Garmback could range from aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, to negligent homicide, a first-degree misdemeanor, Nelson said.
Nelson and others said police officers should receive the same treatment as any of the thousands of people whose criminal cases cycle in and out of county court each year.
The group’s court filing comes less than three weeks after a judge in Cleveland acquitted a white patrolman charged with voluntary manslaughter in the 2012 deaths of two black suspects after a high-speed chase. The prosecution of Michael Brelo in that case is a credit to Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty, who was willing to take a use-of-force case against a police officer to trial, Katz said.
The city asked the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department to investigate Tamir’s shooting in January. The sheriff last week said his office had completed the investigation and had given county prosecutors the case.
A spokesman for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office said Tuesday that said the investigation isn’t finished and that evidence and expert analysis will be presented to a grand jury when the probe is completed.
The head of Cleveland’s largest police union issued an incendiary statement on Tuesday about the group’s effort to have the officers charged and arrested.
“It is very sad how miserable the lives of these self-appointed activists, civil rights leaders and clergy must be,” wrote Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, adding: “Civilized society cannot permit the rule of law to be subverted by mob rule.”