Last week, Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann offered up a rather startling phrase in explaining his mindset when he shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice at a public park in November 2014.
It's a term that has been inescapable in recent weeks across America. Tragedies in San Bernardino, California—where the FBI on Friday designated the killing of 14 people an act of terrorism—and Colorado Springs—where just days earlier a lone gunman killed three people at a Planned Parenthood Clinic—are just the latest active shootings to have gut-wrenching consequences. That Loehmann would use the same phrase to explain his actions to a grand jury seems, at first blush, bizarre. After all, not only had no shots been fired by the child that day, Rice's gun turned out to be a toy.
A year has passed since Rice was killed on November 22, 2014, but the case has remained a local and national flashpoint, the child's death joining a constantly growing roll call of police brutality against people of color. Neither Loehmann nor his partner Frank Garmback have been charged so far in the episode. They refused to cooperate with the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's investigation of the case, and when called last week to a grand jury, the officers read sworn statements and did not answer questions about the incident.
So what makes someone an "active shooter"? And is it even remotely legitimate for the officer to describe Rice that way?
According to the Department of Homeland Security, an active shooter is a "an individual who is engaged in killing, or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area." Thomas Aveni, a former cop who's been researching police use of deadly force since 1995, says the definition contains just enough leeway to apply to the call that led police to confront Rice. Although the dispatch call didn't mention gunshots or victims, it did mention a suspect waving a weapon.
"If someone's in a public place, reported to be brandishing a firearm and when you arrive, you see what you believe to be a firearm, that Homeland Security definition… 'Either actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people,' that gives (police) a little bit of wiggle room," says Aveni, who heads the Police Policy Studies Council , a New Hampshire-based organization that studies police use of deadly force.
"If they arrive and Tamir Rice has this replica gun in hand and let's say he brandishes it… in such a way that they think somebody is in imminent danger, I could see where they could use this definition," Aveni continues.
According to Loehmann's statement, the officers were at a neighborhood church when they heard the dispatch of a "male waiving (sic) a gun and pointing at people." The officers' statement said they were closest to Cudell Park, a city recreation center, so they took the call.
As Loehmann recalled, Rice was sitting alone at a gazebo, and the police saw him pick up "an object" and stick it in his waistband. They said they thought he was going to go inside the recreation center, but when they rolled up, instead of heading toward the building, Rice turned toward the squad car. According to a report commissioned by Rice's family and released Friday, Loehmann shot Rice less than a second after opening his car door, and the child was not reaching for the toy at that time. (Reports released by Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty suggested slightly more time elapsed and concluded that the shooting was justified.)
What the police should have done is warn Rice to drop the object, according to JC Shegog, a law-enforcement trainer who's worked for Dyncorp and Blackwater and is based in Nashville, Tennessee.
"If there are no shots being fired, if no one is being hit, you don't respond with deadly force," he said.
That Rice turned toward the squad car seems to have escalated the situation in the officers' minds. "The suspect had a gun, had been threatening others with the weapon, and had not obeyed our command to show us his hands," Loehmann said in his statement. "This was an active shooter situation."
Of course, if Loehmann really believed he was in such a situation, he may have also thought he had little time to save himself or potential victims. The DHS says active shooting episodes are short—typically only ten to 15 minutes—and extremely volatile.
That's why Aveni—like many observers—can't help but think how differently things might have gone if the dispatcher had relayed the original caller 9-1-1 caller's suspicion that the suspect was probably kid playing with a fake gun.
"If somebody told me that the person I'm dealing with might be 13… I'm going to weigh that in before I arrive. If somebody tells me that (the weapon) might be a toy, I'm certainly going to weigh that in… before I arrive."
Afi Scruggs is a freelance reporter and content creator who lives in suburban Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter.