Timothy Loehmann began his policing career in a suburban community of Cleveland.
He was a mess. His emotional immaturity, lying and insubordination were deemed so dire that a deputy chief asserted in a written assessment that Loehmann shouldn’t be an officer. After all, it’s a job that gives a person extraordinary powers over the average citizen, including the legal right to shoot someone dead.
But that small police department allowed Loehmann to resign unscathed by his record, which allowed him the ability to shuffle over to the larger Cleveland Police Department, which hired him.
Within his first few months on the job, he shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
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This week, more than two years after the killing, the Cleveland Police Department finally fired Loehmann — but not for killing a little boy who was playing with a toy gun in a park. No, Loehmann was kicked off the force for what sounds like a technicality. He was fired for not disclosing his previous issues.
Loehmann is a type in law enforcement, a so-called gypsy cop: a problem officer who is allowed to exit quietly and unscathed from his bad behavior in one department and then join a police force elsewhere, often with devastating results.
This is not unusual. Peer deeper into many questionable officer-involved shootings or uses of force and you’ll find a cop with a similarly tainted past.
It’s not unlike a Catholic diocese or other religious organization moving pedophile clerics around. Or school districts that shuffle teachers and coaches with questionable records concerning discipline or inappropriate interactions with children.
School districts and police departments often don’t fire their problem people, but rather send them on their way, shoving them out or nudging hard. It’s often done to save the legal hassles of a firing, or to placate a union.
The issue was highlighted in a March 2016 report by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) that looked at critical issues in policing, based on a roundtable of prominent chiefs of police.
“A lot of the chiefs in this room will tell you that they try to fire officers who engage in serious misconduct, but they have arbitration boards that overrule the chief,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of PERF.
These wayward officers endanger more than themselves and the public. They can endanger their colleagues by escalating situations to the point where lethal force is necessary, or otherwise by negating protocol and training.
Certainly, there are plenty of instances where police take a life well within the bounds of the law and even the public’s understanding of a justified use of force. Those are the majority of cases.
And even in the death of Tamir, there are extenuating circumstances in the officer’s favor. A dispatcher did not relay all of the pertinent information. Loehmann and his partner weren’t told that the person was likely a juvenile and that the gun was probably fake.
But that doesn’t dismiss Loehmann’s past record or the fact that Cleveland police failed to take it into account. Nor does it mitigate the fact that his previous department judged that its duty to public safety ended when it sent him out their door.
Clearly, nothing will change without a commitment from departments, the boards that oversee them, licensing agencies and unions. A good start would be establishing a system to help departments track officers who have lost their licenses in other states.
Despite backlash from highly publicized police shootings in recent years, police officers generally are held in high esteem. They face dangerous situations just by showing up for work, and the public respects that.
But that assumed valor ought to come with an equally weighted expectation that all officers are the most qualified, highly trained and able people for this serious work.
Not everyone is cut out to be an officer. No matter how much training they are given, some people simply can’t live up to the protocols and expectations that come with a gun and a badge.
Tamir Rice should be in middle school. He should have finished out that day as he would normally, with his friends at the nearby community center. He should have graduated from the sixth grade and gone on with his young life.
Tamir’s mother, in an interview with the New York Times, captured the proper sentiment: “Timothy Loehmann should have never been a police officer in the first place.”