CLEVELAND, Ohio — A judge in Cleveland ruled Thursday that probable cause existed to charge two Cleveland police officers in the death of a 12-year-old boy, Tamir Rice, but also said he did not have the power to order the arrests without a complaint being filed by a prosecutor.
This week, a group of activists and community leaders asked the Municipal Court to have the officers, Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback, arrested under a little-used Ohio law that allows “a private citizen having knowledge of the facts” to start the process by filing an affidavit with a court. They argued that the widely seen video of an officer killing Tamir had given nearly everyone “knowledge of the facts.”
On Thursday, Judge Ronald B. Adrine issued an order saying that probable cause existed to charge the officers, and “this court determines that complaints should be filed by the prosecutor of the City of Cleveland and/or the Cuyahoga County prosecutor.” What weight the order carries with the prosecutors is unclear.
The ruling puts prosecutors in a difficult position, deciding whether to bring charges in a high-profile case when a judge has already said that probable cause exists to do so.
In a statement, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, Timothy J. McGinty, said the case, “as with all other fatal use of deadly force cases involving law enforcement officers, will go to the grand jury.”
Ultimately, Mr. McGinty said, any decision to file charges will rest with the members of a grand jury.
The petitioners argued that the statute allowed ordinary citizens to bypass the police and prosecutors, and force arrests; if they showed probable cause that a crime had been committed, they said, then the court had no choice but to order the officers arrested.
But the judge said there was a conflict between the law and the rules laid down by the State Supreme Court, so he could not issue warrants without a prosecutor’s complaint.
In his ruling, the judge found that probable cause existed to charge Officer Loehmann, who fired the shots that killed Tamir, with murder, involuntary manslaughter, reckless homicide or dereliction of duty. The judge also ruled that probable cause existed to charge Office Garmback, who drove the police car, with negligent homicide or dereliction of duty.
Tamir was fatally shot in November while he played in a park. A 911 caller had reported that the boy was waving a gun that was “probably fake.” When officers arrived, they pulled their car into the park, next to the boy. Within two seconds, Officer Loehmann had shot Tamir in the abdomen. The gun, it turned out, was a lifelike, airsoft-style gun, which fired plastic pellets.
The Rev. Jawanza K. Colvin, a Cleveland pastor who filed affidavits in the case, said that the findings of probable cause showed that residents could have their concerns taken seriously by the courts.
“It is a step, and it is a step that tells those who have continued to work for justice in the criminal justice system that all lives do matter,” Mr. Colvin said.
A lawyer for the Rice family, Walter Madison, said Tamir’s relatives were “overwhelmed” by the findings and “cannot believe that the system has actually worked in their favor.”
“Albeit a small step toward justice, it is a step nonetheless,” Mr. Madison said.
“The order said that warrants should be filed, and I think that puts the onus on another set of public servants to listen to the people,” Mr. Madison said. “I think anything but an indictment at this particular time calls into serious question the county prosecutor and the appearance of impropriety.”
This story originally written by Richard Pérez-Peña for the New York Times