Cleveland Police hand off investigation into Tamir Rice shooting to county sheriff

City officials in Cleveland announced on Friday that they are handing over the investigation into the Nov. 22 police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice to the county sheriff’s office.

“This decision to turn the investigation over was made to ensure that transparency and an extra layer of separation and impartiality were established,” said Mayor Frank G. Jackson. “I believe that the best way to ensure accountability in a use of force investigation is to have it completed by an outside agency.”

The North East Ohio Media Group reported on Wednesday that top city officials were in talks with county officials to have an outside agency take over the investigation, which so far has been conducted by the city’s use of deadly force investigation team. Those early reports, which identified the sheriff’s office as the likely home for the ongoing investigation, initially raised concerns from some close to the Rice family – who noted that county sheriff Frank Bova is a longtime law enforcement official and former Cleveland police officer.

But Bova will not be directly involved in the investigation, which will be overseen by the office’s second-in-command, chief Clifford Pinkney – who has been with the sheriff’s department since 1991 and is the county’s first African-American chief.

“Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department is well-prepared to conduct this investigation. We have some of our most experienced Detectives working this case and I’m confident that the investigation will be extensive,” said Pinkney, in a statement on Friday. “I intend to lead this investigation with an understanding of the importance and gravity of a thorough and systematic resolution.”

Officials close to the decision said that Cleveland lawmakers wanted to avoid some of the appearances of conflict that existed in Ferguson – where protesters questioned whether county prosecutor Bob McCulloch, who had close professional and family ties to local officers, could conduct a fair grand jury process — and ensure that the public remained confident in the process.

Department policy mandates that the deadly force investigation must turn over information to the county prosecutor within 90 days of an officer-involved shooting so it can be presented to a grand jury. It is expected that any independent review of the shooting would also abide by that timeframe, with a final report issued to county prosecutor Timothy McGinty by the end of February.

Tamir’s shooting was one of the latest in what was a series of police shootings of black men and boys that drew national attention and outrage throughout the summer and fall. Tamir boy was playing  with a toy gun in a park near his home prior to the shooting, prompting a 911 call in which the caller noted that a young man was playing with a weapon. Although the caller specified to the dispatcher that the person in question was likely a child with a toy, that information was not relayed to the responding officers.

The officers approached the park from a side street, pulling directly up on the grass where Tamir was playing – coming within feet of him — rather than approaching from the paved parking lot not far away from the boy. City officials have suggested that this tactic was intended to prevent Tamir, who the officers believed had a real weapon, from fleeing into a residential area. But rather than run away, Tamir took a step toward the officers who had driven up to him. 

Police officials have said the officers feared for their lives because Rice moved toward the vehicle and reached toward his waist. In initial statements from police about the shooting, the department claimed the officers instructed Tamir three times to raise his hands and he instead reached for his waist. 

However, video of the incident showed that officer Timothy Loehmann leaped from the cruiser while it was still moving – sliding on freshly-fallen snow – and shot Tamir in the stomach within two seconds of the officers arriving on the scene. 

The video’s release prompted protests in Cleveland and in other parts of the country, with activists calling for the indictment of Loehmann, and fellow Cleveland Police officer Frank Garmback, who was driving. 

And the shooting came just one week after the death of Tanisha Anderson, a Cleveland woman with a history of mental illness who died after officers were called to her home. Police say Anderson resisted officers’ attempts to transport her for medical evaluation and then went limp, while family members insist Anderson was complying with officers and was violently slammed to the ground. 

On Friday, the county medical examiner’s ruled Anderson’s death a homicide – prompting the family to renew its own calls for an independent prosecutor. 

“Our beloved Tanisha’s death has been ruled a homicide,” the Anderson family said in a statement. “The family demands justice for Tanisha, a thorough criminal investigation and an independent prosecutor that results in accountability by the police officers and the Cleveland Police Department.”

Soon after the Tamir Rice shooting, county prosecutor McGinty said that he planned to bring that case to a grand jury – which is his office’s policy for the handling of all officer involved shootings.

“The decision to charge or not charge ultimately rests with the grand jury in these cases,” he said. 

McGinty, a former probation officer and county judge, was elected county prosecutor in 2012. He oversaw the prosecution of officers involved in”137 shots” an infamous 2012 case in which Cleveland police officers engaged in a car chase through much of the city that ended with 13 officers firing 137 bullets into the vehicle – killing two residents who turned out to be unarmed. One officer was indicted, and five supervisors were charged with dereliction of duty. 

Activists around the country have seen Tamir’s shooting as possibly the most likely of the high profile police shootings for the officers involved to be indicted – in part because the entire incident was caught on camera. 

A grand jury in St. Louis County, Mo. declined to indict officer Darren Wilson for the Aug. 9 shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man who the officer claimed had attempted to go for his weapon. That decision – which was proceeded by months of calls for a special prosecutor and federal intervention by activists, community leaders and the Brown family – led to violent riots that left more than two dozen local buildings damaged and burned and sparked protests nationwide. 

And, even more recently, the decision of a grand jury in early December to not indict the officer who killed Eric Garner – a New York man who was choked by officers during an arrest in the spring in an altercation also captured on camera – has kept others skeptical. 

“Instead of following the outrageous unprofessional misconduct of the St. Louis County Prosecutor, you can make an historical change to end the perceptions and practice of racial bias in our criminal justice system,” wrote Rick Nagin, a member of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party’s executive committee, in a Dec. 29 letter to McGinty urging him to pursue criminal charges against the officers involved in Tamir’s shooting. “ I hope you will do the right thing and fulfill your sworn duty to seek justice. If you do, you will be a hero, you will make history and strike an decisive blow for democracy.”