Tamir Rice was only 12 years old, but his size apparently made him look much older, as Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty told reporters Monday. That disturbing quote from McGinty's announcement encapsulated everything that was wrong with the grand jury's decision not to pursue Rice's case further, compounding a year of angry protest from activists, who have argued that police officers acted rashly in shooting the unarmed black boy last November. During the press conference, McGinty reiterated the department's claim that the two officers had not acted criminally.
"... Both Tamir and the rookie officer [who shot him] were no doubt frightened," said McGinty, adding that Rice had been warned that "his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day." Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Matthew Meyer later repeated those claims, citing Rice's pant and shoe size as proof that he did not appear to be 12 years old. "[Rice] was 5-foot-7, weighed 175 pounds, and wore a men's XL jacket," he explained.
Social media exploded. "Another instance of projecting size/strength on a black victim," wrote one Twitter user, angrily noting that prosecutors seemed to be engaging in victim blaming "to the nth degree." Another user mocked the idea of investigators using Rice's size as an excuse, remarking darkly, "So if Tamir Rice was a few inches shorter and a few pounds lighter, his killer cop would be prosecuted?"
The firestorm only snowballed from there, with Al Jazeera America news producer Ned Resnikoff quickly pointing out that the trend of police viewing young black men as much older and less-innocent than their white counterparts was not new. "As noted after prior shootings, studies [have shown] cops are likelier to perceive black boys as being older than they are," he wrote on Twitter, citing a March 2014 study by the American Psychological Association. The study, which was conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, indicated that black teens were "likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime," and confirmed that police were often unconsciously biased against black communities in general.
"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," said study author Phillip Atiba Goff, PhD, in a statement that month. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."
During Monday's press conference, prosecutors seemed to fall under that same umbrella of unconscious discrimination. "Simply put, given this perfect storm of human error," said McGinty, explaining that Rice, who had been pointing his pellet gun at various passersby in the hours before his death, had likely been attempting to hand over his toy when he was shot by police. "[This type of shooting] should never happen again," he added, urging toy manufacturers to stop producing realistic-looking handgun replicas.
On Monday, prosecutors also alleged that the disconnect between the information that was given to dispatchers by the 911 caller — that Rice was a "juvenile" and that the gun was likely "a fake" — and the information the dispatcher subsequently passed on to police had contributed to the tragic outcome of the incident. "Had the officers been aware of these qualifiers," said Meyers, "lives may not have been put at stake."
While police and prosecutors have thus far attempted to show exactly why the two officers involved in the Tamir Rice case were not responsible for his death, their own comments revealed an inherent and underlying flaw in the system — one that came tragically came to a head last November, and could prove difficult to remedy in the coming days.
"Tamir's family is saddened and disappointed by this outcome — but not surprised," wrote Rice family attorney Subodh Chandra in a statement following the press conference. She then urged the public to continue its demonstrations. "We renew our request that the Department of Justice step in to conduct a real investigation into this tragic shooting of a 12-year-old child."