Cleveland Police Shot and Killed a 12-Year-Old Boy for Carrying a Pellet Gun

The news: 12-year-old Cleveland boy Tamir Rice is dead after police officers mistook a toy pellet gun for a real one, an incident that has sparked an investigation into why officers chose to fire their service weapons rather than a Taser.

On Saturday, officers arrived at a Cleveland playground after a man called 911 to report a boy waving a gun he thought was "probably fake" — but the officers weren't informed that witnesses thought the weapon wasn't real. NBC reports:

Police said officers responded to a report of a person waving a gun around at a playground and that Tamir was shot after he allegedly refused to put his hands up and reached in his waistband for what appeared to be a handgun. The handgun turned out to be an "airsoft" replica toy gun, which shoots pellets in a similar way that a BB gun does. Cleveland police said in a statement that an orange marking designed to make the toys distinguishable from real firearms had been removed.

Deputy Police Chief Ed Tomba defended the actions of the two officers Sunday, but both have been placed on a standard administrative leave while the shooting is investigated.

"We are going to conduct our own investigation," Rice family attorney Tim Kucharski told WKYC. "We are going to talk to witnesses. We will get all the 911 tapes, the radio dispatch records as to what was said to the police, what the officers knew and then after we have conducted a thorough investigation we will make a determination after talking with the family with what we will proceed with legally at that point."

The background: Tamir's death under questionable circumstances isn't the only controversy surrounding the Cleveland police department, which is currently being investigated by the Department of Justice for allegedly loose use-of-deadly-force policies and systemic disregard for civil rights. Six officers were recently indicted for their role in a November 2012 high-speed chase that ended in 137 shots fired and the deaths of two unarmed men.

Nationally, police kill black suspects at many times the rate as white ones. ProPublica estimates that black suspects are approximately 21 times as likely as white ones to end up dead at the hands of cops.

Local police reported killing around 400 people a year to the FBI over a seven year period ending in 2012. USA Today reported an average of 96 a year could be confirmed to involve white officers and a black suspect. University of South Carolina criminologist Geoff Alpert commented that thanks to the lack of a national database on police violence, it's difficult to tell just how often questionable shootings occur.

"I've looked at records in hundreds of departments and it is very rare that you find someone saying, 'Oh, gosh, we used excessive force,'" he said. "In 98.9% of the cases, they are stamped as justified and sent along.''

Why you should care: Another day, another tragic death of a black child at the hands of police. The fate that befell Tamir is part of a larger national pattern in which cops are quicker to shoot and kill minority suspects than white ones. And last week, an officer in Brooklyn, New York, shot and killed an unarmed man in a housing-project stairwell who was not a suspect.

A recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll found that 38% of black respondents thought calling the police to intervene in a dispute would "make the situation more volatile," compared with just 23% of whites. Nearly 60% of black people claimed there was police brutality in their area; just 25% of whites did. Another poll in August found that 42% of black respondents thought that blacks' relationship with police has gotten worse in the past two decades.

"Unfortunately, the patterns that we've been seeing recently are consistent: The police don't show as much care when they are handling incidents that involve young black men and women, and so they do shoot and kill," John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Delores Jones-Brown told Mother Jones. "And then for whatever reason, juries and prosecutor's offices are much less likely to indict or convict."

Meanwhile, there's an easy way to help prevent at least some future mistakes involving fake guns: making sure they can't be mistaken for real ones. The Independent reports that Ohio State Rep. Alicia Reece from Cincinnati has already introduced legislation requiring "all BB guns, air rifles and airsoft guns sold in Ohio to be brightly colored or have prominent fluorescent strips."

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Tom McKay

Tom is a staff writer at Mic, covering national politics, media, policing and the war on drugs. He is based in New York and can be reached at tmckay@mic.com.

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