At least eight officers, including some with more than decade of experience, who first responded to the shooting death of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, last November initially thought the 12-year-old was much older and that his toy gun was real, according to a Sheriff's investigative report released Saturday by prosecutors.
Rice was shot by a Cleveland police officer in a public park while playing with a toy gun on Nov. 22, 2014. The friend who lent him the toy had warned Rice the weapon "looked real," investigators found.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department and Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation began investigating the boy's death in January at the request of the Cleveland Division of Police.
"This investigation was conducted with the purpose of determining, to the extent possible, the circumstances surrounding this use of deadly force incident," the report reads. "As unbiased collectors of fact, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's investigative team has not, and will not, render any opinion on the legality of the officers' actions. Instead, it is anticipated that this investigation will provide the basis of information for decisions to be rendered by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office and/or the Department of Justice."
The department delivered its report on June 3 to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office, which said it was releasing the report in the interests of transparency.
"Transparency (i.e., the actual facts) is essential for an intelligent discussion of the important issues raised by this case," Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty said in a statement. "If we wait years for all litigation to be completed before the citizens are allowed to know what actually happened, we will have squandered our best opportunity to institute needed changes in use of force policy, police training and leadership."
At least eight law enforcement agents interviewed by investigators said the boy looked much older than his 12 years, with many estimating him to be aged between 16 to 20.
An FBI agent who arrived on scene shortly after the shooting and began providing Rice with medical attention said the boy was "big" and estimated he was around 18.
"I actually overheard [Rice's sister] say at one point, like, 'He's 12,'" the agent told investigators. "I remember thinking to myself, I'm like, 'There's no way.' And I looked at his face, I'm like, 'Yeah.' He's got a young looking face, but I mean, I -- if you never told me that, I'd have never thought that based on his size."
The original 911 caller had warned of a black male pointing a weapon at people, but had said the man "could be a juvenile" and that the weapon was "probably fake."
Staff and other kids at the park's recreation center said the 12-year-old was there almost every day with his sister. He'd play games, but he wasn't very good at sports. Other boys would sometimes pick on him.
The friend who lent Rice the pellet gun warned him to be careful with the weapon because it looked real.
The friend told investigators he had lent Rice the weapon in exchange for a cell phone. He said he had disassembled the gun in order to fix it, but had not reattached the orange cup that belongs on the gun's barrel.
Witnesses told the Sheriff's investigators that Rice had been using the weapon to fire at car tires before his death.
Several officers, including some who had worked on the force for almost two decades, initially thought the weapon was real when they first saw it, according to the report.
The FBI agent with 18 years experience, who had also served in the Marine Corps and as a concealed weapons permit instructor, said he initially thought the gun was a Colt 1911. It was only when he saw a green BB with its magazine that he realized it was a toy.
He told investigators that even with his firearms experience, it looked "one thousand percent real."
After shooting Rice, Loehmann appeared distraught. "He had a gun, and he reached for it," he told others at the scene.
Loehmann made the comments to the FBI special agent who had given Rice first aid. The agent told investigators he hadn't prompted Loehmann to explain his actions; Loehmann started talking spontaneously.
"He said [Rice] had a gun and he reached for it after he told him to show him his hands," the agent told investigators.
Cleveland police have said Loehmann told Rice to raise his hands three times before opening fire. In the investigative documents released Saturday, no witnesses confirmed or disproved what Loehmann may have said to Rice.
Loehmann made similar comments at the scene to another police officer, who then relayed them to investigators.
"He gave me no choice. He reached for the gun and there was nothing I could do."
Loehmann and Gambark themselves refused to be interviewed for the report.
The dispatcher who took the original 911 call spoke with investigators after receiving a subpoena, but she did not answer questions about why she did not relay information about Rice's possible age or the "probably fake" gun to the officers.
On Thursday, Judge Ronald Adrine of the Cleveland Municipal Court issued a statement of probable cause to file criminal charges against the police officers involved in Rice's death.
At least one of the officers, Timothy Loehmann, could be charged with murder. The other officer, Frank Garmback, could face lesser charges, such as involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and dereliction of duty.
Ultimately, the sheriff's department report and judge's statement of probable cause are independent of the decision to take the case to a grand jury or bring charges: The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office has said its policy is to submit all cases involving the fatal use of deadly force by law enforcement officers to a grand jury for review.
"We are now in the process of reviewing this report and deciding what additional investigation is needed," McGinty said. "That is the way that every significant investigation works: The Sheriff's investigation is a good solid foundation that will support the grand jury's own investigation. Tamir's family, the people of this community and the officers involved deserve nothing less than the most thorough investigation and analysis possible."
"The death of a citizen resulting from the use of deadly force by the police is different from all other cases and deserves a high level of public scrutiny," the prosecutor said. "These cases involve peace officers/public employees whose decision to take a fellow citizen's life must be evaluated to determine, by law, whether the police officer's action was reasonable under the circumstances and therefore justifiable."
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David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
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Claudia Koerner is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
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