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We Talked to People Who Knew 12-Year-Old Tamir Rice About His Death at the Hands of Cleveland Cops

An alleged eyewitness, Rice's art teacher, and a former Cleveland cop weigh in.
01 December 2014, 3:14pm

At this point, you've probably heard about ​Tamir Rice, the Cleveland boy who was killed by police while playing with an Airsoft gun in a public park. The international spotlight didn't have to travel far from Ferguson, Missouri, where last week's non-indictment of Darren Wilson for shooting unarmed black teen Michael Brown sparked unrest and the usual police crackdown.

Of course, it's well known to Clevelanders that their cops don't exactly walk on water. In 2012, at the end of a chase, police—including one who stood on the hood of the car, shooting through the windshield— ​fired 137 bullets into the vehicle of two passengers, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

But unlike the Ferguson situation, protests in Cleveland over Tamir Rice's death hasn't seemed to materialize in a big way. There's confusion and anger, especially about why the cops  ​didn't try to give the kid first aid. I spoke with some of the last people to see Rice before he died—including one man who says he was at the scene and saw the whole thing—as well as a retired Cleveland police officer to get their thoughts on the death and where to go from here.

Doug

VICE: So you and your family were in the park when it happened?
Doug: Yes.

And what exactly went down?
OK, we were walking in the park. We walked right past the little boy as he was sitting on the bench. We stopped to pull out a cigarette about 30 feet from where it took place. And all we heard was two shots. The police said they told him to put his hands up. There was no commands. There was no words. There was just two shots. And the kid hit the ground. It took the ambulance about another eight or nine minutes to even arrive. There was more cop cars showing up before the ambulance even came.

It was just one of those things where it's the police's word against what actually happened, but no one has taken into account that there were actually two people in the park when it took place.

Were you guys the only two people?
From what I seen, we were the only two people there that actually heard the original shooting. As we turned around, that boy fell.

Did the police ask you guys anything?
Nope. We left. We don't want harassment from the police. Because we know what really happened. There were no commands. They just pulled up on him and it was two shots. The cop didn't say anything at all to the kid.

Was the boy waving the gun around when you saw him?
When we seen him, he was sitting down. He was sitting at the bench minding his own business. And there was nobody else there.

Having a child in this community, does this make you guys feel worried at all? That something like that could just happen?
Yeah, I am kind of terrified that there are kids around and the police take those kinds of measures against children. I find that really unfair and considering that the playground is right behind my daughter's school. She goes to school right there. She goes to recess at that playground. And just think, if that would have been a day where there were kids outside. Now I'm feeling like I need to pull her out of that school.

But I couldn't even fathom that my daughter would be outside with a BB gun. In retrospect, the kid was wrong for having a BB gun, but the cops were even more wrong for just pulling up and opening fire and saying they gave commands when they clearly didn't, because we would have heard that. They didn't give any commands.

Kolé

VICE: Tamir was one of your kids here at the arts center. What was he like as a person?
​**Kol**é: He was kind. Tamir and his sister used to come over here and visit us. There was another teacher that was in this room too, Miss Tanya, and they'd give us hugs. Mild-mannered kids. They'd make people laugh. Just full of love, as far as I'm concerned. He wasn't a bad kid. I never had to tell him, "Get out. "It was his choice to come here or not because it's a drop-in program. It's after school—he was one that chose to be here.

All these kids live right around this perimeter. They don't have a backyard. This is their backyard. They're here all year around, in the summer, swimming, making art. In the wintertime they're here. We just had Thanskgiving dinner for these kids.

Do you think it**'s affected the way the children view this area?** I don't know, because some of the kids came back right away. They were here, like, that Monday. And I wasn't. But now I don't see nobody. I don't know if their parents are going, "No, you can't go over there anymore." I don't know what's going on. I just know this moment. It's very quiet.

Have you guys talked to the kids about it all?
I've tried to talk to some of the kids, and the general consensus is like, "Yeah, that was bad." And they don't go any deeper in speaking on it. And I'm like, "You're not afraid, or anything?"

Because me, I'd be afraid of the police right about now. If I was 13, and that was something that I saw happen, I'd be afraid of the police.

Do you think it has anything to do with race?
I think it has to do with how police operate. Right now, they're not operating with the idea that that's a life. Whether he's doing something wrong or not, that's a life. See, me, I try to preserve life. It's not shoot first, ask questions later. I do believe on the side of the police car it says, "Protect and Serve." And who they were protecting that day? I don't know.

I really think that it was unnecessary. [The police officer] could have Tased, he could have stopped far away enough, and told him to freeze, put your hands up.

Have you seen the video of what happened?
Of course, because that's our surveillance. There's a camera that's pointed right there to the gazebo. There's cameras all over this building.

I've seen the gun. The kids, they've brought their BB guns in, and decorated them. One kid wanted to decorate it for his costumes. Because usually the play guns are camouflage color, they're not black. They painted their guns to match their costumes. But there's a little orange thing that's the tip of the gun and [Tamir] took the orange thing off.

And that**'s Tamir**'s last piece of art he ever made over there?
Yeah, that pumpkin over there—that was the last piece of art he ever made. He had got a new outfit, and he didn't want to get paint on his new outfit, but he wanted to finish the project of painting the pumpkins. And so we were trying to figure it out, and I was just like, "Put on an apron."

And he was like, "No, I don't want to wear an apron, that's for girls!" You know how little boys are. And he was like, "No, I got this, Miss Kolé." And one of the other boys was like, "What can we tie it up with?" And I gave them the string and they tied it up. And they were trying to paint it while it's hanging. Which is funny, because you know, it sways. So [Tamir] was kind of like, being silly and moving funny as he painted.

Obviously he didn't finish it.

VICE: So you saw Tamir Rice the day before he died?
2DZQueGallaGalla: Yeah I seen the lil' nigga the day before he died. He was out here in front of the Cudell [Recreation Center]. He was right there playing with the gun aiming it at some blood nigga... I just walked past. I ain't really give a fuck, cause lil' niggas play with guns all the time.

So you weren**'t scared at all?** ​No.

Was anyone scared?
​Naw. It was only me. I'm from Cleveland, man. This shit goes around all the time. Niggas die every day. Police right there though, you feel me? [Points at police car pulling up near us]. Fuck them dudes, you feel me? Real shit. What, they gon' kill me? They gon' shoot me? We over here with the interview, I'm 'bout to smoke my blunt and everything. Real shit, though. I don't give a fuck, I swear to God.

Are a lot of people here upset?
​Shit, I don't know. I mean, I seen that shit on IG, a lot of people was talking about it. He stayed right across the street from my girl house though. RIP my lil' nigga Tamir. He was only 12, though. Yup. Lil' bro. That shit crazy, for real. They got the plastic toy gun here, you feel me? [picks up plastic toy gun on Tamir's memorial, presses the trigger, it makes a sound.] That shit crazy as fuck. Niggas gonna shoot me? [waves the gun around] That shit crazy, though. Real shit, though.

****Did they kill anyone else?****
****​****They kill hella niggas, you feel me? Everybody be getting shot around this bitch. Not just police killing shit, but everybody killing shit. Everybody. This bitch crazy, for real. This shit ain't nothing.

My nigga gone, you feel me. That's just how it is. That's just a part of life. Death, you here, you gone. Real shit, though. Lil' bro was only 12.

VICE: What do you make of this local shooting and the attention it's getting?
Gayle Miller-Cooper: Because of his age, anybody would be upset. But as a cop, coming from a cop's point of view, I can understand how this could happen. I was on the job for 27 years and I can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing as the officer who is getting scrutinized.

How does this fit into the context of what's happening across America with men of color being shot down by police?
Those other incidents around the country—those were unarmed people. That's a totally different thing. But with this situation, the child did have what looked like a real gun. From what we know, the orange tip was filed off. But even if it hadn't been filed off, the gun was tucked in his waistline, so the officer would have never seen it.

It's a sad event, but I've known of incidents where even younger children were shot. Police officers are trained to operate a certain way when a gun is involved. When you see a gun, you don't have long to think about it. In that split-second, if you hesitate, you'll be dead. Most officers go out every evening wanting to come back home. I raised four kids while on the job, so my main thing was making it back to them. You serve and protect—but you also have to protect your own life.

Strategically, his partner bungled this. His partner could have stopped the car maybe 30 feet from the suspect, which would have allowed them to say, "Put the gun down!" in safety. But when the driving officer pulled right up in front of the suspect, he put his partner in the kill zone. I don't know what else the officer on the passenger side could have done if he truly believed his life was in danger.

Is it fair to wonder how the cops made this mistake given that the 9-1-1 caller said they thought the gun might be fake?
I was a supervisor in radio. The intake workers type what you say when you call in, but they don't type it verbatim. They send that information over by computer to a dispatcher. And the dispatcher looks up on a board and reads what was written by the intake workers. What was dispatched to the officer was that the suspect had a gun. Even if the dispatcher had said that the gun could be a toy, it's hard for the officer on the scene to figure out whether a gun is real or not when they pull up on it the way they did. Many officers have died hesitating in those kind of situations. I'm really sorry for the family, but I can't say I wouldn't have done the same thing as the officer in question.

Have there been other incidents like this involving excessive force by Cleveland cops?
There was a heavily reported police shooting of two unarmed black suspects after an excessively long chase. One officer got up on the hood of the car and just kept emptying and reloading his weapon into the suspects. There's no excuse for that kind of behavior.

How does this kind of incident affect morale?
Incidents like the the one I told you about where the officer shot two unarmed people repeatedly can cast aspersions on the entire department. It's a shame, because in reality Cleveland is one of the best-trained departments in the country. These sorts of things are abnormal.

Do you think with all this media attention, coupled with the timing of the non-indictment in Ferguson, anything will change?
I've been around a long time and seen tragic incidents like Ferguson. The unarmed shootings you hear about today were happening all the way back when I started the job, too. I think there'll be a fervor around Ferguson. They'll put some legislation in place. But things will just go back to the way they always were. Right now, police will have to be careful to make a whole lot of reports about every incident. But things won't change drastically.

In terms of the situation with the 12-year-old, there might be a tougher investigation into this shooting than there would have been if Ferguson hadn't happened. But what we can see as professional police officers with 60 years between us [her and husband], we don't get the sense from the body language of the officers involved that they are trying to get one over the community with this shooting. One cop can tell when another cop is lying. Based on the body language and police jargon they used, they appeared to be coming straightforward with it. I believe they know more than they're saying now and the officers involved probably won't be indicted.

Full disclosure: Sergeant Miller-Cooper is the mother of VICE senior editor Wilbert L. Cooper.

Matt Taylor contributed reporting.

Follow Zach Schwartz on ​Twitter.