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Remembering Tamir Rice: Police shooting of 12-year-old playing with toy gun energized criminal justice reform efforts

Tamir Rice had recently traded a cellphone with another boy, exchanging it for a realistic-looking toy gun that fired plastic pellets.

Dressed warmly in a camouflage hat, gray coat with black sleeves and gray pants on a cold November day in Cleveland, Ohio, Tamir went alone to a park near his mother’s home, threw a snowball and struck poses with the lifelike replica of a Colt pistol.

Someone in the park saw Tamir, called 911 and reported seeing “a guy in here with a pistol” that was “probably fake” and that the holder was “probably a juvenile.”

But due to a series of miscommunications, tactical errors and institutional failures by Cleveland police, the responding officers did not get the message from dispatch that Tamir was likely a child or that what he was holding might be a toy. The officers did, however, get the message that the incident was a “Code 1,” indicating the police department’s highest level of urgency.

A police cruiser suddenly appeared in the park, sliding to a quick stop next to a gazebo where Tamir was standing. Seconds later, a rookie officer fatally shot the boy in the abdomen from point-blank range, describing the 12-year-old as a “Black male, maybe 20, black revolver, black handgun by him.”

The officer’s quick draw, captured in a grainy surveillance video, called into question a police statement that an officer warned the boy three times to raise his hands before shots were fired.

Tamir Rice’s fatal shooting six years ago on November 22, 2014, drew international attention, highlighted the ways in which police see Black boys as more dangerous than they are, and made Tamir a prominent symbol of the Movement for Black Lives over continued police killings and mistreatment of Black people and other communities of color.

Had he lived, Tamir would now be 18 – old enough to vote. His mother, Samaria Rice, has called for criminal justice reform and started a foundation in his honor to empower and protect Black youth.

“The murders of Tamir Rice, who was playing with a toy gun; Emmett Till, who was whistling; and Trayvon Martin, who was walking home after buying candy; all have one thing in common: They were Black boys engaged in harmless adolescent activities, but they were killed because someone thought they were older and more menacing than they were because of their race,” said Tafeni English, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Civil Rights Memorial Center, which includes interpretive exhibits about civil rights martyrs.

“The long, grueling road of the anti-racist movement continues in the wake of the more recent killings of other Black people like George FloydBreonna TaylorTony McDadeSean ReedYassin MohamedAhmaud ArberyRayshard Brooks and so many others – showing us how much further we still have to go to achieve justice for everyone,” she said.

FBI police database

The shooting death of Tamir Rice and other police killings have prompted efforts to track officers with troubling backgrounds who leave one department and then go to another.

The officer who killed Tamir, for example, had a history of emotional problems related to a girlfriend. A supervisor at another Ohio law enforcement agency where he previously worked said he was “distracted and weepy” at a shooting range and that he “would not be able to substantially cope, or make good decisions” in stressful situations. He was allowed to resign from that department after six months.

In March 2014, the Cleveland Police Department hired the same officer without reviewing his personnel file from the previous department. After the officer shot Tamir in November of that year, the Cleveland Police Department fired him for lying on his job application. But in 2018, yet another Ohio police department hired him.

Spurred on by Tamir’s killing and others, the FBI in 2015 created a national database of police use of force. But the effectiveness of the database has been called into question because, among other issues, police departments around the country are not required to share their disciplinary data.

“Collecting use-of-force information is critical to reform efforts. However, the FBI’s database – in its current form and limitations – isn’t very useful,” said Jonathan Barry-Blocker, a staff attorney with the SPLC’s Criminal Justice Reform Practice Group.

Only agencies representing 40% of all federal, state, local and tribal sworn officers nationwide supplied use-of-force information to the FBI in 2019.

The numbers are abysmal in Southern states.

Only five out of 461 agencies in Alabama, representing 2% of sworn officers in the state, provided use-of-force data to the FBI in 2020. In Louisiana, just three out of 309 agencies (8%  of officers) participated. And in Mississippi, just four out of 252 agencies (4% of officers) supplied the information.

“That is insufficient participation for the database to be of practical use,” Barry-Blocker said. “Additionally, it’s unclear how each reporting agency chooses to capture and report their use-of-force statistics. Therefore, the database is likely not representative of U.S. police agencies and their use-of-force behaviors. If the FBI’s database is to be a credible tool for substantive policing reform, then the federal government must compel police agencies to report use-of-force data.”

Other databases – including Mapping Police Violence, The Guardian’s The Counted and The Washington Post’s Fatal Force – capture police use-of-force information better because they are more comprehensive, include more years of data and publish their information, Barry-Blocker said.

Some lawmakers are working to improve the federal government’s collection and sharing of such data.

In June, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill named the George Floyd Policing Act of 2020 that would, among other measures, create a National Police Misconduct Registry. It would require state and local law enforcement agencies around the country to turn over data on police use of force that would be broken down by race, gender, disability, religion and age.

Additionally, the bill would combat racial profiling in policing, ban chokeholds and outlaw no-knock warrants in drug cases. It would also make it easier to pursue claims against police officers in civil court.

The Senate has not approved the bill.

$6 million settlement

Tamir Rice’s family sued the city of Cleveland for his killing and won a $6 million settlement in 2016. But the city admitted no wrongdoing.

Tamir’s family still does not believe that justice has been served. In 2015, a grand jury declined to indict officers in the case. Last year, as part of a civil rights investigation into the shooting, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected a bid by prosecutors to conduct a full grand jury investigation, effectively ending the probe.

“While the settlement set a record for Cleveland police misconduct cases, no amount of money will ever bring a beloved child back,” said Subodh Chandra, the family’s lawyer. “And prosecutors denied the Rice family a chance at equal criminal justice.”

The police officers got the benefit of the doubt in court, he said.

“As the police union admitted, the officers were permitted to read self-serving, pre-written statements to the grand jury and take no cross-examination questions that would have disproved their excuses – special treatment afforded police officers that no other criminal suspects enjoy,” Chandra said.

“Still, the family hopes that their tragedy helped raise public awareness and spur the Black Lives Matter movement, so that we all see meaningful change and reform of both policing and prosecutorial practices in the coming years.”

Adding insult to injury, when Tamir’s 14-year-old sister ran to the scene minutes after the shooting, the officers – who are white – tackled and handcuffed her. When Tamir’s mother, Samaria Rice, arrived on the scene, distraught over seeing her son’s body lying on the ground, the officers threatened to arrest her if she did not calm down. Recently, a police supervisor was suspended for detaining Tamir’s sister for over an hour in the back of a police cruiser.

“We have a racist government and power, and it’s not designed for us to get justice,” Samaria Rice said. “It’s not designed for Black and Brown people to get any type of justice under this government. It’s not designed that way.”

In the aftermath of her son’s killing, Samaria Rice strives to make life better for other Black children. In 2016, she founded the Tamir Rice Foundation, which – among other activities – advocates for police reform by seeking “to change laws and implement new policies for the system with community oversight for police accountability and community reform dialogue,” according to the foundation’s website.

Shortly before this year’s presidential election, the Tamir Rice Foundation partnered with the NAACP, Black Lives Matter activists and G-PAC to encourage Black people to vote. The foundation created a voter guide that included information for young people on how to register and mail in their ballots.

The organization also published The Tamir Rice Safety Handbook on its website, with instructions for youth about what to do if they are stopped by police. It implores them to “Stay calm” and “Ask if you’re free to leave,” and advises, “If the officer puts their hands on you, don’t resist.”

‘We want to nourish them’

In 2018, Samaria Rice also purchased a building in Cleveland, naming it the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center. The building, now under renovation, will house after-school programs focused on tutoring, mentoring, arts, music and dancing for inner-city young people.

Rice wants to make the center into a safe space for children where they can learn about their African culture and heritage. She also wants to provide mentors who can help young people harness their power through civic engagement and activism, and teach them how to make change in the systems that oppress them.

“I created the Afrocentric Cultural Center in memory of my son to give back to the community and invest in the community, also in the inner-city children, because they don’t have anything to do when school is over with,” she said.

“[It’s] basically my way of giving back and developing a formula, and a formula to teach our Black and Brown children where they come from, that they are very much loved and needed, and we want to nourish them in a way that America has failed.”

Photo illustration by SPLC