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Families of Police Victims Need to Go on Offense

Victims of police violence are tried in the court of public opinion along with the cops who killed them. Tamir Rice's mother isn't taking that lying down.

Associated Press

We got to watch another young black man die in a hail of police gunfire last week. But unlike the similar case of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, we didn’t have to wait a year to see the footage because the videographers were citizens, not cops. What you see is 26-year-old Mario Woods leaning up against a building wall on a San Francisco sidewalk, surrounded by several police officers who begin firing when Woods continues to walk towards one that had moved into his path. 

After the cellphone videos of Woods being shot to death went public, his mother was at the forefront of the cacophony of voices pointing out that this was an excessive use of force. Gwendolyn Woods, who learned of her son’s death on Facebook, was understandably heartbroken, noting that Mario had mental health issues—something that seems clear from his behavior immediately prior to the shooting—and that he’d received his UPS uniform for his new job on the day before he died. “He wasn’t a monster,” she told the San Francisco Examiner. “He was not a monster. He would give you the shirt off his back.”

This need to preemptively stand up for a dead man’s character, for the victim of violence, is an understandable consequence in a society that lionizes police officers and prematurely condemns black men, women, and children. The cases of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Jamar Clark are only three examples of many where the motives of the officer committing the shooting (or chokehold, or beating) have come under less public scrutiny than the character of the victim who often can no longer speak for herself or himself. Even Walter Scott, an unarmed man who was fatally shot in the back last year by a South Carolina police officer, found his character in question due to back child support payments.

As such, Gwendolyn Woods had to know that her son, who’d done time and was a suspect in a stabbing at the time of his death, was never going to be a sympathetic victim. And all you need to do is peruse social media or a police comment board to know that a perfect victim is often what it takes for a victim’s family to be believed, much less for a police officer to be successfully prosecuted. 

Moreover, these families find the legal cases against their loved ones’ killers in the hands of prosecutors who seem prone to sabotaging their own chances for an indictment, as many argue Bob McCulloch did in the Darren Wilson case in Ferguson. Therefore, the only recompense most families of police victims can expect is of the financial variety, and as the Washington Post reported in November, that is hardly guaranteed. 

Families of victims, particularly those of color, have become more proactive, as evidenced by the activist work of Sybrina Fulton and other mothers. But now, they have to wage their legal fights in the public sphere. One is doing so quite effectively.

This new strategy is playing out most notably in Cleveland, where lawyers representing Tamir Rice’s mother, Samaria, have commissioned three expert reports about the 12-year-old boy’s death a little more than a year ago. All of them have concluded that the shooting was unreasonable, and involved an excessive use of force by the two officers involved, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback. The most recent report, released late Friday, came from biomedical engineer Jesse Wobrock, who wrote that Tamir never reached for the Airsoft pellet gun in his waistband, contradicting Loehmann’s account. “The scientific analysis and timing involved do not support any claim that there was a meaningful exchange between officer Loehmann and Tamir Rice, before [Tamir] was shot,” he wrote, adding that Tamir raised his right arm in a “defensive-type position” a split-second before Loehmann opened fire on him at a park on Cleveland’s West Side. The boy wasn’t reaching for a weapon, as the officers claimed. He had his hands in his pockets. 

This all may seem obvious to anyone who has watched the video, which shows a police car driving to within feet of Tamir before Loehmann pops out and fatally wounds Tamir. But there’s a good reason why Samaria Rice and her attorneys have done this. Not only do these expert reports buttress their wrongful-death case against the city of Cleveland, but it was a necessary response to the prosecutor in the case, Timothy McGinty, who had already released three reports of his own justifying the shooting. Despite the ongoing grand jury proceedings, McGinty publicized the reports, he said, because “transparency is needed for an intelligent discussion of the important issues raised in police use of deadly force cases.” 

If we’re going to be transparent, let’s discuss the fact that only 15 law enforcement officers have been charged with murder or manslaughter in police shootings this year. Yes, as the Associated Press notes, that’s a big uptick from the average of fewer than five we’ve seen in recent years. The AP spoke to Bowling Green State University criminologist Philip Stinson, who stated that of the 47 officers charged from the beginning of 2005 through the end of last year, about 23 percent were convicted. Per The Guardian, to date 931 of the more than 1,000 people killed by police officers in 2015 died from gunshot wounds. Sure, we’ve seen a rise in charges, one that Stinson attributes to the proliferation of snuff videos showing the killings. But even with that footage, 15 charged represents less than 2 percent of the officers who committed those killings.

Why is that? These cases, too often hopeless causes for victims’ families in the courtroom, are tried first in the court of public opinion. It is telling that McGinty not only solicited reports justifying the murder of a 12-year-old boy, but made them available to all of us outside of the grand jury. This is why the Rice family is smart to play offense. 

“What I think we’re seeing here is a new strategy that is emerging by private civil rights attorneys in reaction to two main developments: increasingly public and digitally viral evidence, and a trend by municipalities to settle these types of cases more quickly,” said attorney Vince Warren, executive director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “In the age of social media, ‘expert’ information that is put out in the public sphere quickly has the ability to deeply shape public opinion and the politics around a police shooting. This is why McGinty made his expert findings public, why the Rice attorney is doing the same and, frankly, this is why the city of Chicago sat on the Laquan McDonald video for over a year.”

Warren, whose CCR was behind the successful challenge of “stop-and-frisk” practices in New York City, added that since the public has increased access to videos of these killings—“often before cops can even get their stories straight”—the kind of back-and-forth we’re seeing in Cleveland is happening a lot earlier and a lot more publicly than it might have before. “Prosecutors are trying to manage public opinion by releasing expert opinion evidence before a grand jury has fully heard the case, and civil lawyers are countering with rebuttal experts well before the civil case even gets going,” he told me. 

For his part, McGinty appears willing to submit the evidence obtained by the Rice family to the grand jury. McGinty’s office said in an October statement that it “will listen to and consider credible evidence from any source, including defense attorneys and lawyers who may be representing the deceased’s family in civil litigation against the city.” When asked for comment on the latest report calling the shooting unjustifiable, McGinty’s office reminded me that they “very specifically said we were not drawing any conclusions from them. Every bit of evidence is simply a piece of the puzzle.”

What happened to Tamir Rice and Mario Woods wasn’t all that puzzling, though. Until each police killing is automatically assigned an independent prosecutor who doesn’t regularly work in concert with law enforcement, families must do what Samaria Rice is doing. Let’s hope that Gwendolyn Woods, who just hired an attorney of her own, has been taking notes.