A Year After Tamir Rice Shooting, Oakland Dispatchers Weigh In on How Cleveland Cops Handled Call
Screengrab of video released by Cleveland police and later published by Reuters that shows Tamir Rice holding what turned out to be a toy pistol. A Cleveland police dispatcher failed to alert responding officers that a 911 caller expressed doubt the gun was real. One of the responding officers shot and fatally wounded the 12-year-old. (NYTimes.com/Reuters Video)
A year ago this week, Cleveland police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice while he was holding what turned out to be a toy pistol.
In a case that has become part of the national conversation about race and police use of force, a grand jury is weighing charges against the officers involved. Also getting a lot of scrutiny is an emergency dispatcher who failed to relay key details from a witness.
Three times during a two-minute 911 call, the man told dispatcher Constance Hollinger the gun the suspect was holding might not be real.
“There's a guy here with a pistol -- you know, it’s probably fake,” said the 911 caller.
He also described the suspect as sitting on a swing in the park near a youth center. “He’s probably a juvenile,” said the caller.
“I can't imagine the possibility of [the gun] being fake not being relayed to an officer,” said Regina Harris, who heads Oakland's 911 Dispatch Center. “I can't even imagine what that dispatcher was thinking.”
Emergency dispatchers are the ultimate first responders. They get the emergency call, decide what information is relevant and what priority the call should receive. The Tamir Rice call was given the highest. If dispatchers send the wrong information it can compromise everything. It’s one reason the job is so stressful, according to Harris.
“Its not to say dispatchers don't make mistakes, because they do. They make mistakes. They're human,” Harris said.
Yet in her 30-plus years in the profession, Harris can't recall such a critical mistake. Harris said any and all details are important for responding officers.
Eugenia Oliver knows this all too well. She supervised Oakland police dispatch calls during the mass shooting at Oikos University in 2012, when seven people were killed.
“It’s not up to us to decide if [a detail is] pertinent or not,” said Oliver. “The officer has to have it, and then they can make their best judgment call based on the information that they have.”
Dispatchers and officers work as a team, and one of a dispatcher’s top priorities is officer safety. The fact the 911 caller in the Rice case wasn’t positive the gun was fake can present a problem for dispatchers.
“I would be more afraid that the officer would put their guard down thinking that from the caller,” said Michelle Bauer, an Oakland dispatcher for six years. But Bauer said she would still give officers the caller’s information.
“That’s up to the officer to decide how they're going to approach the call or the person out in the street,” she said.
One of those experts, Ken Katsaris, a police consultant and trainer, was critical of the dispatcher for failing to pass on key details.
But he concluded in his report on the Rice shooting that although the information might have been relevant in some scenarios, “it definitely was not in this situation.”
But Oakland's Regina Harris said she has some doubts.
“I do think it could have been a different situation had the officer known, because their approach may have been totally different,” she said.
Other factors complicate the Tamir Rice case.
The airsoft pellet gun Tamir was holding did not have the orange plastic safety tip that helps identify it as a replica. He was also 195 pounds and may have looked older than 12.
On the other hand, the officers pulled their car up less than 10 feet from the boy -- leaving little time to assess the situation. In a shooting captured on video, Timothy Loehmann, a rookie officer, shot Tamir just 2 seconds after the patrol car pulled up. Officer Frank Garmback called in the shooting to dispatch.
“Shots fired. Male down- black male- maybe 20. ...”
Tamir Rice would have turned 13 years old last June. His family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit that names many defendants, including the city of Cleveland, the responding officers and the dispatchers. A grand jury is currently hearing evidence to determine if any police should be indicted in the case.