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Column: Remember the name Tamir Rice – a child shot dead by police for carrying a toy gun

American police forces have become increasingly militarised in recent decades – adopting the weapons, tactics and mindset of soldiers instead of civilian protectors.

Niall McGlynn

THE NAME TAMIR RICE may not yet have the same connotations as Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin or Rodney King, but it should. Like the three men above, Tamir was black. Like the two of the three men, Tamir was shot dead – in this case by a police officer in the city of Cleveland, Ohio.

The difference is that Tamir Rice was only 12 years old when he was shot.

Trayvon Martin was shot while allegedly having an altercation with a member of a neighbourhood watch group. Rodney King was infamously assaulted and beaten by members of the LAPD after a high speed car chase. Finally, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August of this year after another alleged confrontation, this time with a police officer. All three of these incidents became flashpoints in the debates around civil rights and racism in the United States.

Tamir’s case is different only in that he was not even a teenager when he was shot, his name is not a byword for racism and police brutality, and he had no altercation with police prior to his shooting. His only offence was that he allegedly failed to obey police instructions to put his hands up, instructions given because he was carrying a toy gun. To repeat: a 12-year-old boy was shot dead by a police officer because he reached for an imitation gun, a child’s plaything. The Cleveland Police Department has said that the orange safety cap in the barrel of the gun, which marks it as an imitation gun, had been removed and so the officers who approached Tamir thought it was a real firearm.

How did it happen? 

The background to the shooting is as follows. Tamir was apparently playing in a local playground where he was brandishing the toy gun at people, as young boys generally do. At this point, a call was placed to the emergency 911 line. The caller reported someone waving a gun around. The caller twice stated that the gun was “probably” a fake. For some reason, this information was not communicated to the officers who responded to the call.

When the officers approached Tamir, they apparently told him to raise his hands. At this point Tamir raised his shirt to show the officers the gun tucked into his waistband. The police allege that Tamir then reached for the gun, at which point one of the officers shot him twice in the chest.

This case is horrific on so many levels. Unanswered questions abound. Why did the police dispatcher not tell the two officers who responded to the call that the gun was, in all probability, fake? How did two police officers misidentify a young boy playing as a dangerous situation involving a firearm? Why did the police officers (or at least one of them) panic when Tamir reached for his toy gun and start firing, safety identifier or not?

When did a “shoot first” mentality take such a hold in police departments that it now extends to children? Why did the officers have to shoot first, even if they suspected the gun was real? Soldiers in a warzone often operate under a ‘do not fire unless fired upon’ rule. Why do the police, who are not in a warzone but are supposed to protect civilians at home, get to shoot first, and against children no less? Surely, if there is a circumstance in which society might ask police officers to risk their lives and wait to be fired upon before responding, a boy with a possible toy gun fits the bill?

An increasingly militarised police force 

A 12 year old playing with something that looks like a gun is very different to a grown man carrying something that looks like a gun. What kind of training does the Cleveland Police Department give its officers that their first instinct when confronted by a child who might have a weapon is to shoot?

In the past few decades American police forces have become increasingly militarised, adopting the weapons, tactics and mindset of soldiers. This is a truly terrifying prospect. Soldiers are trained to engage in combat with enemy soldiers, where the objective is to kill the enemy. Police, by contrast are supposed to protect civilians in a civilian, peacetime setting. The mindset of soldiers is entirely inappropriate for police officers, let alone military weapons and practises. Yet increased use of military style outfits like SWAT teams and the prevalence of the “shoot first” mentality show that militarisation is ongoing and far advanced.

The reaction to the fatal shooting

The reaction to Tamir’s death is equally disturbing. In response to his death, politicians are pushing for new restrictions on… toy guns. In response to the shooting of a 12-year-old boy, the political class’s response is to blame the toy gun. Not the police officers who shot Tamir, not the police policies that encouraged them to shoot first, not even the dispatcher who failed to tell the officers that the gun looked fake. No, the real culprit in Tamir’s death is the maker of his toy, apparently.

We can only hope that the tragic deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and all the other innocent victims of militarised policing, galvanise Americans to fundamentally change the way their country approaches policing. For those of us lucky enough to live in a country like Ireland, we must fight to keep the insidious military mindset, which has brought so much death and tragedy to innocent people like Tamir, out of our own police force.

The reaction in Ferguson to the acquittal of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown, has shown that racial tensions are alive and well in the United States, and that the tragic deaths of black men at the hands of the police have not yet had an impact. Perhaps the death of an innocent boy, not old enough to shave but old enough to be considered a likely shooter, will finally start to change how America polices its citizens.

Niall McGlynn is a graduate in history and science from Trinity College Dublin. He has written articles on Irish and global affairs for Trinity News, and blogs on both with his brothers at http://lazyhermes.blogspot.ie/ and tweets at @NiallMcGlynn1.

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Niall McGlynn

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