tamir rice

Tamir Rice was a 12-year-old boy who was playing in a Cleveland, Ohio park with a toy gun. Someone called 911 and reported that a “juvenile” was pointing a gun at passersby and that the gun was probably a toy. Two city police officers named Loehmann and Garmback arrived on the scene in separate cars. Critical information had NOT been related to them: they were not told that Tamir was a child, nor that Tamir appeared to be playing with a toy gun. It appears, however, that within two minutes of arriving on the scene Officer Loehmann had taken out his real gun, aimed, opened fire, and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.

It is unclear to me how anyone, including a trained police officer, can assess a scene in under two minutes. It is unclear how a grown man can not recognize the difference between a child with a toy gun and a threatening adult. It is equally unclear to me how anyone with a conscience can ever again sleep at night after shooting a child to death. Yet two “independent experts” in police shootings stated that this police shooting was justified and/or reasonable.

In South Carolina, a female high-school student refused to leave the classroom, and security was called. The so-called “school resource officer,” Ben Fields, confronted the girl, grabbed her, and then turned over her desk with her in it, throwing her on the floor in the process. He then dragged her out of the classroom while choking her. Of course, everything was caught on a cell-phone video. Another student, who complained about her classmate’s treatment by calling out “Stop! What are you doing to her?” (or something along those lines), was then arrested for interfering. The security guard has since been fired – but was this the best way to handle a teenager?

America is simply too violent. It seems the only way we try to resolve a dispute is with a gun. Shoot first and asked questions later. It’s as if we live in the Wild, Wild West with Wyatt Earp and John Wesley Hardin, who once shot a man for snoring. Where is Wild Bill Hickok? We have to have a better way of resolving our differences.

As a trauma surgeon, I have dealt with some of the … let’s say, more unbalanced citizens of our society. Even the craziest, most schizophrenic patient responds to an overwhelming show of force. If you get four or five big guys together and walk into the room of a patient refusing to get in bed or to stop throwing things, that patient suddenly becomes very cooperative. I have seen this happen time and time again. No punches need to be thrown. No one needs to be dragged anywhere.

What if instead of dumping a student on her head, you clear the room? Then get four or five teachers and the security guard to ask the student if she would like to walk with them to the principal’s office? I promise you, this would have worked. The student would then be the focus of the discussion instead of the security guard.

As for the death of Tamir Rice … I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand bursting out of your patrol car with guns blazing. That always works well on Starsky and Hutch or NCIS, but not so well in real life. Can’t we try to figure out what’s going on before we open fire? Why can’t we wait for backup, and then approach with overwhelming force?

In the 1940s and ’50s we all pretended to be the same and act the same. Then the ’60s and ’70s we “discovered” that we are not all the same. So those years were all about us trying to figure out how we were going to live together as a society. Since we weren’t going to pretend to live like Leave It to Beaver anymore, we wanted our police forces to work with diverse communities to serve and protect those same communities.

In the ’80s and ’90s we saw the dividing of our nation into “us” and “them,” “America” and “the other.” “The other” was comprised of welfare queens and inner-city thugs, feminazis and enviros, godless Communists and radicals and all sorts of other derogatory names. “Us” referred to the white male believers in law and order and submissive women who go to church on Sunday (even if you never actually attended).

In the 2000s, the federal government began giving surplus military equipment to police departments around the country: semi-automatic guns, riot gear, missile systems, even tanks. Police departments, flush with confiscated drug money (including property seized from innocent people and turned into cash), bought even more, and learned to enjoy using their new toys.

Fifteen years into the new millennium, look where we are. According to the Washington Post, 821 Americans have been shot and killed by the police so far this year – with two months to go. Now, I’m not saying that all police shootings are wrong: if you look at some of the circumstances, the police were protecting either themselves or the community. If a drunk guy comes to the front door with a loaded pistol, you might not be able to talk him out of that gun. When a guy crashes his car, then gets out and points a loaded gun at the police, I’m not sure there is any reasonable response other than the police officer defending himself by shooting back, or shooting first.

What I am saying is that shooting should be our last option, not our first. If we truly believe that life is precious … Tamir Rice would be alive today. Michael Brown (shot down in Ferguson, MO) would probably be alive today. Eric Garner (choked to death by police in Staten Island, NY) would be alive today. And so would many of the others – almost all of them black men – whose lives were not so precious that we allowed them to live.