Editor's note: On May 23, Michael Brelo, one of the Cleveland police officers involved in the 2012 shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, was acquitted of manslaughter by an Ohio judge. After a chase through Cleveland, Brelo was one of several officers who had fired 137 shots at the car driven by Russell. The acquitted officer himself fired 49 rounds after climbing onto the hood of the car. Neither Russell nor Williams were armed. The aquittal comes amid a wrenching national debate over how police use force, especially against black civilians.
Nine of the 13 Cleveland cops who fired 137 shots at two apparently unarmed black civilians following a high-speed chase in 2012 have filed a federal lawsuit saying they are victims of racial discrimination.
Eight of the aggrieved cops are white. The ninth is Hispanic. They charge that the city of Cleveland has “a history of treating non-African American officers involved in the shootings of African Americans substantially harsher than African-American officers.”
As if their race was the deciding factor in the cops being kept on restricted duty for 16 months after a backfire mistaken for a gunshot and an ensuing cross-town chase led to police firing nearly as many shots at the unarmed Melissa Williams and Timothy Russell as were unleashed upon Bonnie and Clyde in their famous final shootout—leaving Melissa with 24 gunshot wounds to Bonnie’s 23 and Timothy with 23 to Clyde’s 25.
Replay the last scene of the movie Bonnie and Clyde in your mind, only replace the decidedly armed and deadly pair with a homeless duo armed with nothing in the car besides a couple of crack pipes and an empty Coca-Cola can.
The Cleveland Nine should count themselves lucky that they were returned to full duty after 16 months.
Just imagine if one of them had been the cop who fatally shot a black 12-year-old named Tamir Rice after he flashed a realistic looking toy gun in a Cleveland park late last month.
There is already a damning common denominator between the two shootings: the Cleveland police department itself.
After the 2012 shooting, an investigation by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office found the department far more to blame than the individual cops.
And some of the same failures in communication and tactics seem to have played a major role in the more recent tragedy involving young Tamir.
In announcing the results of his investigation into the 2012 deaths, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine did make clear that no report would have been necessary if Russell had not sped wildly away from police in his 1979 Malibu with Williams at his side, reaching speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Russell had been pulled over for the most minor of traffic violations by a cop who had a hunch that he and Williams had been buying drugs.
“To state the obvious, the chase would have ended without tragic results if Timothy Russell had simply stopped the car in response to the police pursuit,” DeWine said as he released the report in February 2013. “Perhaps the alcohol and cocaine in his system impaired his judgment. We will never know.”
DeWine went on: “We do know that each officer at the scene believed he or she was dealing with a driver who had fled law enforcement. They each also believed they were dealing with a passenger who was brandishing a gun—and that the gun had been fired at a police officer. It is now clear that those last two beliefs were likely not true.”
He said something that applies to cops of whatever race in whatever jurisdiction.
“Police officers have a very difficult job. They must make life and death decisions in a split second based on whatever information they have in that moment. But when you have an emergency, like what happened that night, the system has to be strong enough to override subjective decisions made by individuals who are under that extreme stress.”
He continued: “Policy, training, communications, and command have to be so strong and so ingrained to prevent subjective judgment from spiraling out of control. The system has to take over and put on the brakes.”
As it was, the chase was accompanied and spurred on by apparently erroneous radio reports of the occupants firing and reloading a gun. And it all culminated in a middle-school parking lot with the cops mistaking gunfire from other cops as coming from inside the suspect’s car and blazing away as if they had encountered a modern day Bonnie and Clyde rather than just unarmed Melissa and Timothy.
“We are dealing with a systematic failure in the Cleveland Police Department,” DeWine concluded. “Command failed. Communications failed. The system failed.”
After such an indictment, you would expect the department to do all it could to remedy such failings. And that should have prominently included communications. A test came with a phone call to 911 on Nov. 22.
Dispatcher: “Cleveland Police…”
Caller: “Hey, how are you?”
Caller: “I’m sitting in the park… by the West Boulevard rapid transit station and there’s a guy and like a pistol, you know. It’s probably fake, but he’s like pointing it at everybody.”
Dispatcher: “And where are you at, sir?”
Caller: “I’m sitting in the park at West Cudell, West Boulevard by the West Boulevard rapid transit station.”
Dispatcher: “So, you’re at the rapid station. Are you are the rapid station?”
Caller: “No, I’m sitting across the street at the park.”
Dispatcher: “What’s the name of the park, Cudell?”
Caller: “Cudell, yes. The guy keeps pulling it in and out of his pan… it’s probably fake, but you know what, he’s scaring…
Dispatcher: “What does he look like?”
Caller: “He has a camouflage hat on.”
Dispatcher: “Is he black or white?”
Caller: “He has a gray, gray coat with black sleeves and gray pants on.”
Dispatcher: “Is he black or white?”
Caller: “I’m sorry?”
Dispatcher: “Is he black or white?”
Caller: “He’s black.”
Dispatcher: “He’s got a camo jacket and gray pants?
Caller: “No, he has a camo hat on. You know what that is?...”
Caller: “…Desert storm. And his jacket is gray and it’s got black sleeves on it. He’s sitting on the swing right now. He’s pulling it out of his pants and pointing it at people. He’s probably a juvenile, you know?”
Dispatcher: “Do you have a gun?”
Caller: “No, I do no not. I’m getting ready to leave, but you know what, he’s right nearby, you know, the youth center or whatever and he’s pulling it in and out of his pants. I don’t know if it’s real or not.”
Dispatcher: “OK, we’ll send a car there, thank you.”
Caller: “Thank you.”
A car was indeed dispatched, with no mention that the suspect was possibly a juvenile and that the gun might be a toy.
Dispatcher: "In the park by the youth center, there’s a black male sitting on the swings. He’s wearing a camouflage hat, a gray jacket with black sleeves. He keeps pulling a gun out of his pants and pointing it at people.”
A surveillance video shows the radio car driving directly into the park, just feet from the youngster. A white rookie cop named Timothy Loehmann was in the passenger seat and police would later insist that he repeatedly instructed Tamir Rice through the lowered window to raise his hands.
If that is so, Loehmann must have been shouting that even as the car was rolling up, for two seconds pass before the startled Tamir is fatally shot. The police say he reached for the gun in his waistband.
And if that is so, Tamir may have been trying to show the cops his gun was just a toy, though there seems not to have been time even for that. He more likely was just moving reflexively as a youngster might if a radio car suddenly materialized right before him in the park, with a cop in the window shouting something a stunned young brain might not immediately register.
Whatever exactly transpired, the Cleveland Police Department had not learned some important lessons from the 2012 shooting about imagined danger and restraint.
However the department deals with Loehmann is not likely to be directly determined by his race any more than race directly determined how the department dealt with the aggrieved nine who have filed the lawsuit.
Race becomes a big factor when the press and the public go generic; white cops and black victims with little attention paid to the details and the individuals and the circumstances. The department responds as press becomes pressure.
In their lawsuit, the Cleveland Nine say an unnamed black cop received only “the 45-day cooling off period” of restricted duty in the gym after shooting a black suspect.
Had the media made an issue of the shooting, you can be all but certain that the cop in question would not have just done a little “gym time,” no matter what his race.
One white cop who is not part of the suit is Michael Brelo, who somehow fired 49 of the 137 bullets unleashed in 2012, reloading twice. He faces manslaughter charges and is now awaiting trial. The city of Cleveland recently reached a $3 million settlement with the Russell and Williams families.
On Saturday, relatives returned to the middle-school parking lot where Russell and Williams were killed and gathered with the family of Tamir Rice. Highway safety flares provided light as the clans joined by loss sought solace in prayer and song.
A report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer describes balloons being released into the night sky. Williams’s uncle, Walter Jackson, spoke to Tamir’s grandfather, J.J. Rice.
“You’re at the start, where we were two years ago,” the uncle said.