Could the days of police officers getting away scot-free with using excessive force be grinding to an end?
This week’s firing of a Cleveland police officer who shot and killed a kid with a pellet gun 2 1 / 2 years ago raises that possibility.
One way or another, whether it’s through federal civil rights investigations or politically charged internal reviews of department procedures, we are beginning to see officers held accountable for questionable shootings that end in unnecessary deaths.
The Balch Springs, Texas, officer, Roy Oliver, who shot and killed a fleeing, unarmed Jordan Edwards in late April, was fired for violating departmental procedures. He’s also been charged with murder. The Department of Justice also is investigating.
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The North Charleston, S.C., officer, Michael Slager, who shot Walter Scott in the back following a traffic stop, pleaded guilty to a federal civil rights charge of using excessive force after his trial for murder ended with a hung jury.
Tulsa, Okla., police Officer Betty Shelby was acquitted last month in the 2016 fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher – she’s even returned to work, albeit a desk job, with back pay – but remains the target of a Department of Justice probe similar to the one that nabbed Slager.
But the Cleveland case stands out because it illustrates the lengths to which authorities now are willing to go to get rid of bad apples.
Officer Timothy Loehmann was not fired Tuesday for shooting and killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice after responding to a 911 call about a boy with a gun at a city park. He was dismissed after a Cleveland Department of Public Safety probe concluded he told at least four lies on his application.
Loehmann wrote on his application that he’d resigned from a suburban police department for “personal reasons.” Investigators, however, learned that the neighboring Independence Police Department judged Loehmann to be unfit for the job, citing his “inability to emotionally function.”
It gets worse. Rather than firing Loehmann, that department did what we’ve seen one too many school districts do with unqualified or problematic teachers – it let Loehmann resign instead of ousting him for cause.
Loehmann went on to apply for a job at another suburban police department, only to fail the written exam, another fact he didn’t disclose on his application.
His trail of lies would lead him on Nov. 22, 2014, to the Cudell Recreation Center, where a black child was sitting on a bench with a pellet gun.
The tragedy that unfolded wasn’t all Loehmann’s fault. There was blame to go around. Loehmann’s sidekick, Officer Frank Garmback, was suspended for 10 days without pay and ordered to get more tactical training. Investigators said Garmback violated department policies by driving his squad car into the park and by failing to let the radio dispatcher know he’d reached the scene.
The dispatcher, Constance Hollinger, was suspended for eight days for failing to provide crucial details that may have put the responding officers in a calmer state of mind. She didn’t tell them the 911 caller said the suspect was “probably” a child and the gun was “probably fake.”
The whole ordeal was botched from the get-go, which is why the city’s settlement of a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit came as no surprise.
But money alone isn’t justice.
Nor, for that matter, does the circuitous probe that resulted in Loehmann’s dismissal satisfy everyone, including Tamir’s family.
“I am relieved Loehmann has been fired because he should never have been a police officer in the first place – but he should have been fired for shooting my son in less than one second, not just for lying on his application. And Garmback should be fired, too, for his role in pulling up too close to Tamir,” the boy’s mother, Samaria Rice, said in a statement.
Just as quickly, the local police union assumed its predictable posture by taking issue with the punishment meted out.
“We have maintained from the outset that the death of Tamir Rice was, and is, tragic, but as the decision-makers in this city know full well, his death was not caused by any failures of officers Garmback or Loehmann,” Steve Loomis, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said in a statement. “Both our officers reacted to the events that unfortunately unfolded before them. This is why Officer Loehmann was not charged criminally or with a single rule, policy, or training violation.”
The conflicting responses underscore why it’s so hard to move the needle on this issue, and why justice remains an elusive target.
Loomis is wrong, by the way.
Both officers made decisions that not only jeopardized their safety but the life of a kid. Training, tactics and procedures – and, above all, personal judgment – do matter.
Look at how police handled a man, Michael Wayne Pettigrew, who was waving a gun at Orlando International Airport last week.
“Kill me,” Pettigrew yelled at police, who managed to stay calm and end the standoff without firing a shot.
Turns out, Pettigrew, who apparently was trying to commit “suicide by cop,” was wielding a toy gun.
It reminds me of what two top police officials told me recently: Gone are the days when departments can stand unquestioningly behind officers who say “I feared for my safety” to justify any shooting.
That may still neutralize a jury.
But, in many cases, thank goodness, it no longer lets them off the hook.
The writer is a columnist for The Dallas Morning News.