You have by now heard the news that a Cleveland grand jury has declined to indict white police officers in the shooting death of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old black kid who had been playing with a realistic looking toy pistol on a public playground. More:
In announcing the decision here Monday, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said he did not recommend that the grand jury bring any charges. McGinty added that he believes both of the Cleveland police officers involved in the deadly encounter were reasonable in their belief that Rice had a real weapon, and that new analysis of the video of the shooting leaves it “indisputable” that the boy was pulling the weapon from his waistband when he was killed.
“The outcome will not cheer anyone, nor should it,” McGinty said. “Simply put, given this perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved that day, the evidence did not indicate criminal conduct by police.”
In a statement issued not long after the prosecutor’s announcement, attorneys for Tamir Rice’s family decried the grand jury process and renewed their calls for the Department of Justice to bring federal charges.
“It has been clear for months now that Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty was abusing and manipulating the grand jury process to orchestrate a vote against indictment,” the family attorneys said. “Even though video shows the police shooting Tamir in less than one second, Prosecutor McGinty hired so-called expert witnesses to try to exonerate the officers and tell the grand jury their conduct was reasonable and justified. It is unheard of, and highly improper, for a prosecutor to hire ‘experts’ to try to exonerate the targets of a grand jury investigation.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio said Monday that federal officials monitored the grand-jury process, and that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is currently conducting its own independent investigation into Rice’s death.
Rice had been playing with a fake gun from which he had removed the orange safety tip that signals to others that the gun is a toy. It also emerged that Rice, despite his age, was 5’7″ and 175 lbs., which allegedly caused the two police officers to mistake him for a fully-grown man.
Never mind that Loehmann [the cop who shot Rice] was previously fired from a police department for incompetence with firearms. Never mind that he shot Rice the very second his car arrived at the teen’s location. Never mind that the officers prevented Rice’s sister from assisting him as he lay dying of a gunshot wound. Never mind that they did absolutely nothing to help him until an FBI agent happened upon the scene.
The only thing that matters is whether Loehmann thought he was justified in killing Rice, and the law is such that no one is qualified to second-guess Loehmann’s decision except Loehmann himself. This is the level of deference we extend to police decision-making, and it is the reason the quest for justice in Rice’s unconscionable murder was doomed from the start.
Well, the cops preventing Rice’s sister from helping may have been wrong, but it has nothing to do with whether or not the shooting was justified given what the police knew at the time. Still, how crazy is it that we are in a situation in which the police might well have acted non-criminally, but still decided to speed up to the scene and start firing almost instantly?
Look, I did not sit on that grand jury, and I didn’t review all the evidence, and hear testimony. I have no way of knowing if its decision in this case was justified, and I doubt you do either. Seems to me that the way people respond to this decision depends heavily — and perhaps even wholly — on whether they are inclined to trust the police as a general matter. I have long been predisposed to give police the benefit of the doubt, but the outrageous conduct of Chicago police and city officials in the Laquan McDonald case makes it hard to know whom to trust.
A white reader who works for a large city, inside the city government, told me an interesting story the other day, one I forgot to blog about. In his city, the violent crime is almost exclusively in the black part of town. He said that the things police in his city have to deal with in terms of drugs and gun violence beggar belief. (I asked him for examples, and he gave me a few.) He also told me that he has personally witnessed police brutality against black crime suspects on more than one occasion. He said the abusive cops that he’s seen are both white and black, and that he fears his city is prime for a riot.
I was startled to hear this because this reader’s city has not been in the news for police brutality. I did a Google search to see if something had come up that I had missed, but nothing did. I verified that this reader really is an employee of his city’s government, and asked him subsequently about the lack of media coverage, given that his city has both a newspaper and TV stations. Said the reader, “I am constantly amazed by the things that go on here that I know about personally, that never make the news.”
The reader gave more detailed information than I’m able to share here, out of an abundance of caution for his privacy. If this reader is correct, then this whole situation in his city is about the failure of institutions. The police are failing. The local media are failing. The family and institutions that shape morality in that city’s black community are failing. I googled information about the public schools in the reader’s city, and with a few exceptions, they’re a disaster.
But about the police. I don’t know about you, but I’m coming to regard the police as an institution with the same mistrust that I have come to have for the church, academia, and the media as institutions. I have friends who are priests and pastors, as well as friends who are police officers, academics, and journalists. All of them are, to the best of my knowledge, good and trustworthy people; if they were not, I wouldn’t be friends with them.
But in observing the behavior of these institutions, I sense a strong defensiveness, and an unwillingness to be self-critical, leading either to a denial of institutional problems, or a private recognition of problems, but a public unwillingness to deal with them out of fear of losing face. I suppose it has always been that way, and we are only now learning the truth of what has been there all along, given human nature. Maybe.
Still, there is no question that the public’s trust in its institutions is at a historic low. Gallup has been polling on this since 1993, and in 2015’s results, found that overall, confidence in US institutions is lower than it has been since ’93.
Where did the Trump phenomenon come from? Do we really have to ask?
Three years ago, National Journal wrote a piece about the decline in confidence in American institutions. They began by telling the story of Johnny Whitmire, an unemployed white working-class man in Muncie, Indiana, who had been pretty badly battered by life. Excerpt:
Muncie is a microcosm of a nation whose motto could be, “In Nothing We Trust.” Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses “a great deal” of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion. “We have lost our gods,” says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it—that basic sense of trust and confidence—in everything.”
We’ve been through this before, and Muncie is again instructive. Nearly nine decades ago, sociologists Robert and Helen Lynd moved here to document the transition away from an agrarian economy. Americans were battered by unbridled commercialism, stymied by an incompetent government beholden to special interests, and flustered by new technologies and new media. The Lynds found a loss of faith in social institutions. But, somehow, institutions adapted or gave way to vibrant new ones. The Catholic Church took on poverty, illness, and illiteracy. The Progressive movement, embodied by Theodore Roosevelt, grappled with the social costs of modernization and equipped the government to offset them. Labor unions reined in the corporate excesses of the new economy. Fraternal organizations, a new concept, gave people a sense of community that was lost when knitting circles and barn-raisings died out.
Perhaps the problem is merely cyclical. “To a degree unlike any time since the Lynds’ time, we’ve lost trust in one another and the institutions that are supposed to hold us together,” says James Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University here. Yet unlike that earlier era, vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones. And even when they do, they don’t always restore Americans’ faith in institutions and each other. Schools are worsening (especially relative to competitors abroad); politicians are limited to small-bore, partisan measures; and corporations’ power over people like Johnny Whitmire is rising. What if, this time, institutions don’t recover—and our faith dies with them?
I think it is entirely possible, and maybe even likely, that the Cleveland officers committed no crime in the Tamir Rice situation. That it’s just a terrible tragedy. If so — if so — then the legal system worked. That said, does anybody in Cleveland — black, white, or otherwise — come away from this event with more confidence in the Cleveland police force? Can we at least agree on that?