Tamir Rice

CLEVELAND — It began as a fairly typical Saturday afternoon for Tamir Rice, playing at a park a block from his home. But when a friend lent him a black toy pistol used to fire plastic pellets, everything changed.

As Tamir, 12, walked about the park waving the pistol, which looked like a real handgun, someone became alarmed and called 911. Minutes later a police cruiser roared up, and seconds after that, Tamir was fatally wounded by a police officer’s gunfire.

“It wasn’t his gun at all,” Samaria Rice, Tamir’s mother, said in a telephone interview. “I don’t allow that type of thing at my house.”

As Tamir lay on the ground, Ms. Rice tried to run to his side, but was blocked by police officers who warned her to “calm down” or be arrested, she said. The police also tackled and handcuffed Tamir’s 14-year-old sister as she rushed to her brother, Ms. Rice said.

A Cleveland police spokeswoman declined to comment on how the police had treated Ms. Rice and her daughter that day, Nov. 22. But Ms. Rice’s account of the shooting provides new details of a killing that outraged many in this majority-black city and has become part of a broader narrative about police violence in African-American communities around the country.


A memorial site with a picture of Tamir Rice, 12, at the Cleveland park where he was fatally shot last month by a rookie police officer after waving a plastic gun.CreditTy Wright for The New York Times

In the interview, Ms. Rice demanded that criminal charges be brought against the rookie police officer who killed her son. That officer had quit a suburban police job after his bosses determined two years ago that he was emotionally unfit to handle the stresses of police work, but the Cleveland police did not look at his personnel file before hiring him. Officials from Cleveland’s main police union, which represents patrolmen, did not return messages seeking comment.

Ms. Rice has also filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against the city. “The police harass the community,” she said in the interview, voicing a perspective common among young minorities in Tamir’s Rice’s West Side neighborhood.

That view was echoed in a strongly worded Justice Department report last week that said the Cleveland police had a pattern of “unreasonable and unnecessary use of force.” The report found that the police saw themselves in some places as an “occupying force instead of a true partner and resource in the community it serves” and that they “must undergo a cultural shift at all levels to change an ‘us-against-them’ mentality we too often observed.”

One of the clearer signs of this problem was literally a sign, the Justice Department said: a large banner hanging in a district police station that described the facility as a “Forward Operating Base” — the term the military uses for heavily guarded wartime outposts inside insurgent-held territory.

Released by Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. at a news conference in the sleek skyscraper that houses the main federal courts in downtown Cleveland, the report also found that the police frequently stopped and searched people without apparent cause, and that blacks widely believed the mostly white police force singled them out for verbal and physical aggression.

This was not news to Joseph McFarland, a school employee in his 20s, or his friends. He said he spent a night in jail after being stopped a few blocks from where Tamir Rice lived, for not having lights or reflectors on his bicycle.

“That’s not why they stopped me,” he interjected. “They stopped me because they were being racist.”

Like Mr. McFarland, his girlfriend, Samantha Teresi, said they knew many people their age that had been hassled or detained by the police.

“If you try to question them, they’ll arrest you, they’ll try to pin something on you,” she said, standing just steps from the Rices’ home. “They don’t like to be questioned. They don’t like it when you know your rights.”


Joseph McFarland said he spent a night in jail after being stopped a few blocks from where Tamir Rice lived, for not having lights or reflectors on his bicycle.CreditAngelo Merendino for The New York Times

The neighborhood has not seen the same economic revival that some other Cleveland sections have experienced. Just west is Lakewood, Ohio, which a few years ago was ranked by BusinessWeek as the best place in the state to raise children. To the east is the trendy Gordon Square Arts District, where new boutiques and restaurants have opened, and home prices are rising.

Between those is Tamir’s neighborhood, where blight, poverty and crime are more common. Until a 299-count indictment put a dent in it six weeks ago, a gang known as B.B.E. 900, whose area of influence was near the Rice family’s home, terrorized some people in the neighborhood.

“They have intimidated, they have victimized, they have hurt our community,” the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Timothy J. McGinty, said during a news conference announcing the charges, including murder and assault, against dozens of alleged gang members. Other gangs have been powerful in the stretch anchored by Madison Avenue, including Madison Madhouse, residents say.

Within sight of the shrine of stuffed teddy bears that now rest on the park bench where Tamir Rice was shot are memorials to two police officers killed in this neighborhood in the line of duty: Robert J. Clark II, who died July 1, 1998, and Jonathan Schroeder, known as A. J., who was killed on Aug. 31, 2006. Some residents say they won’t let their children play at the recreation center where the shooting happened because it is known for fights and gangs.

Census data indicate the neighborhood has three times the poverty rate of Ohio’s. Once a heavily white neighborhood, it is now racially mixed, as whites have left for the suburbs and African-Americans have moved in during the past two decades.

There is little disagreement among whites and blacks about two things: that the police rarely engage with people unless they have been called because of a crime or some complaint, and that intimidation at night has worsened and more businesses have closed in recent years.

The police “don’t make an effort to get to know us,” said Raphael Ellison, a 29-year-old who moved here a half-dozen years ago. “They’re trying to get a bust or get a collar.”

But not everyone feels the police are oppressive. Nader Tawasha, who has owned a convenience store a few blocks from the Rice family home for almost 17 years, said he was frustrated that vice units no longer prowled Madison Avenue as they did a few years ago. Dealers who used to sell marijuana have gone to harder products like heroin, he said.

“It’s definitely worse,” Mr. Tawasha said of the neighborhood. The “dope boys,” he said, did not fear the regular police cruisers. “If I see a couple of guys selling dope in the parking lot and I call the police, they’ll show up two hours later,” he said.

A frequent visitor to Madison Avenue who identified himself as Glenn, who is white, as he fished out beer cans from a Dumpster behind Mr. Tawasha’s store, said police never stopped him, except “years ago because someone said something about me.”

“I don’t see anyone being victimized,” he said, his long hair covered by a hoodie, his eyes covered by sunglasses. “Where’s the evidence?”



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