Cops fire 137 shots, couple dies, community outraged
Cops fire 137 shots, couple dies, community outraged
Activists say White police shooting of Black couple in Cleveland was another instance of deadly overreaction. But, they charge, the city’s Black mayor and city council have not spoken out strongly enough.
By Starla Muhammad
The Cleveland “atrocity.” That is what activists are calling the shooting deaths of Timothy Ray Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, at the hands of police when 13 officers’ unloaded 137 bullets into the unarmed couple’s car at the end of a high speed chase. Of the 13 officers that fired weapons 12 were White, one was Latino. Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams are Black.
A coalition of community organizations is demanding answers, calling for justice, and demanding more from local officials. This shooting is the final straw in a city whose police department is rife with abuses against Blacks, say activists.
The case is still open and under investigation, but that has not stopped the public from voicing its anger and displeasure at the circumstances surrounding the Nov. 29, 2012 tragedy. Demands include calling in the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the case and having the prosecutor for Cuyahoga County, Ohio recues himself.
A series of “rallies for justice” calling for more action and calling local officials and leaders to task have been held every Fri-day in March in Cleveland’s downtown public square by The Task Force for Community Mobilization, an organization made up of several grassroots Cleveland and East Cleveland groups.
“Never in the history that I have found that Black people have been murdered by the Cleveland Police and shot 137 times. No weapon, no drugs, have done nothing illegal, except the fact that one cop that said they fired at them, which they proved they never had a gun, all they had was a pop can,” said John A. Boyd, a member of the task force and former candidate for Cleveland City Council.
“They had like 60-some cars chasing them throughout three or four different municipalities and when they cornered them off, they murdered them.” Mr. Boyd told The Final Call.
“The community, we became outraged, that was it,” he added.
According to reports, Ofc. John Jordan called into dispatch to run the license plates of Mr. Russell’s car that was parked in what police describe as an area frequented for drug use and drug trafficking. In later inter-views, the officer said he ob-served the car in a traffic violation and believed illegal drug activity was involved. As the officer approached the vehicle to investigate, police said Mr. Russell took off in the vehicle in which Ms. Williams was a passenger.
As Mr. Russell’s vehicle passed another police cruiser at approximately 10:30 p.m. cops reported they heard what they believed to be gunshots. A high speed chase followed involving dozens of police, ending in a hail of gunfire, leaving the occupants dead.
According to The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Mr. Russell had previous convictions for receiving stolen property, robbery and, on two prior occasions, fleeing police. Ms. Williams had five drug-related convictions between 2004 and 2008.
The chase began in downtown Cleveland and ended in the suburb of East Cleveland with law enforcement personnel from Bratenahl, East Cleveland, the Ohio Highway Patrol and Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Deputies in pursuit.
It was reported, at least nine of the officers had been involved in previous incidents including shootings and at least the settlement of one lawsuit.
East Cleveland’s Police Department requested help from the state’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification (BCI) of the Attorney General’s office to lead the investigation.
After a two month investigation, Attorney General DeWine’s office concluded in a comprehensive report Feb. 5 that the shooting deaths of Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams in part were due to “a systematic failure in the Cleveland Police Department,” and was “a tragedy for all involved.”
“Command failed. Communications failed. The system failed,” said the report. Examples of the failures included “To state the obvious, this chase could have ended without tragic results if Timothy Russell had simply stopped the car in response to the police pursuit. Perhaps the alcohol and the cocaine in his system impaired his judgment. We will never know. Cleveland Police Department policy states that no more than two police vehicles can participate directly in a pursuit except under unusual and well-articulated circumstances. In this situation, at least 59 vehicles were involved without the sector supervisor’s knowledge or permission. Orders to discontinue the pursuit were not heard by some officers because they were transmitted on a channel they were no longer monitoring,” said the report.
“Cleveland has had a history of racial shootings. This is something that’s been longstanding here, that’s been problematic and the Justice Department stepped in not once but twice before to deal with these types of issues,” Mariah Crenshaw, a Cleveland activist, told The Final Call.
Autopsies of both victims as well as video interviews of police officers have been released by the attorney general’s office. Ms. Crenshaw said with the history of Cleveland police shootings of Blacks, the report in this case should have definitely been made public.
According to The Plain Dealer, 23 bullets struck Ms. Williams in the head, neck, body and arm and 24 hit the head, neck and extremities’ of Mr. Russell. One officer fired at least 30 rounds while a second officer fired at least 17. One officer reportedly jumped on top of the car and fired off several rounds directly into the vehicle. Reports said 47 of the 137 rounds hit the victims.
“A retired marine said to me, ‘This guy was out of control.’ You have trajectories where you could see that Timothy Russell had his hands to protect his face and the bullet goes through the back of the hand and exits the palm of the hand, enters into his skull in a downward trajectory where this guy is standing on top of the car and shooting down into the car!” said Ms. Crenshaw of Ohio Communities United.
“And (the officer’s) statement was, ‘I couldn’t figure out why he kept moving?’ You’re loading somebody up with bullets and you can’t figure out why they keep moving? There are so many things that need to be put in front of a jury to determine whether or not these officers acted within the scope of their jobs.”
The Attorney General released his report to the Cuyahoga County prosecutor’s office, which will determine what charges, if any, will be filed.
Questions of leadership
Dissatisfaction among activists toward local governmental, civic and some religious leaders is running deep. Activists charge many leaders have remained silent on this case or are using a “wait and see” approach. Frustration with the response from the Cleveland P.D. is also raising questions.
“Those officers are still on duty. Their weapons have not been taken away from them. As a matter of fact, one of the officers was in another shooting a couple of weeks ago at a club in downtown Cleveland, so it’s still business as usual,” said Mr. Boyd.
The Plain Dealer reported three Cleveland cops were off duty and patronizing a local strip club when shots were reported Feb. 22. One of the officers was also involved in the November shooting of Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams. Exact details of the strip club shooting have not been made public.
Cleveland, which according to the U.S. Census is 53.3 percent Black, has a Black mayor, Frank G. Jackson, and nine of the 19 city wards are represented by a Black city council member.
The Final Call contacted the office of Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty and received the following response via e-mail, “The Attorney General’s Office released their findings of the November 29th incident to our office on February 5, 2013. This matter remains pending at this time and we have no further comment.”
This reporter also called the office for Police Chief Michael McGrath and was told the office does not comment on open and pending investigations. A message was also left with the listed phone number for the Black Shield Police Association in Cleveland.
The Final Call contacted the offices of Rev. Hilton Smith, president of the Cleveland Branch NAACP and Rev. E. Theophilus Caviness, president and CEO of the city’s branch of SCLC but did not receive a response.
In a video interview posted on the website of The Plain Dealer, Dec. 4 outgoing Cleveland NAACP President James Hardiman said the branch “voted unanimously to invite the Department of Justice to come in to conduct its investigation.”
Questions were sent to Mr. Daniel Ball, press assistant to Mayor Jackson on March 11, but no answers were received.
However, Cleveland City Councilman Terrell Pruitt, representing the city’s First Ward, told The Final Call everyone has the same expectation that “no encounter with police should end up with any loss of life for civilians or officers.”
“I talked with the mayor yesterday and he said they’re getting close. They’re working almost 24 hours a day doing all the interviews based on when these officers actually are available. So they’re actually doing interviews and they’re just about to the point where they can determine based on who was involved and their perspective and pretty soon be ready to conclude the investigation and you’ll hear conclusions based on those,” said the councilman.
Mr. Pruitt said it was odd officers heard the call to stop the pursuit and though he said officers may not be criminally negligent, administrative discipline or suspension based on that alone may be applicable.
“I’m kind of interested to see what happens. Is there any charge that’s going to be filed and if they are, what type and if there are any charges for certain officers, is there any suspensions or any administrative penalties being levied,” said Mr. Pruitt, who added he felt the findings in the Attorney General’s report were “a little jaded.”
When asked to elaborate on his comment, Mr. Pruitt said, “The Attorney General can file charges too. I mean he just basically said that it’s his opinion that there’s no rules and regulations, supervision or just basically lack of discipline basically for the entire department. I mean that’s not true. I don’t believe that to be true.”
Demands for justice
County Prosecutor McGinty in the past has been endorsed and supported by the police union so activists say he cannot be unbiased and should remove himself from the case.
“He has historically been endorsed by the police union, the Cleveland Police Patrolman Association and the F.O.P (Fraternal Order of Police) which is the union. They put him in office, they endorsed him, they financed him, he has always been pro-police and the man has a history and a track record of insensitivity to the African American community and African American people. He should not be prosecuting this case. He should recuse himself, is what we’re asking,” said Mr. Boyd.
“It compromises the integrity of the prosecutor’s office for this case to remain with Mr. McGinty”, added Ms. Crenshaw.
“He needs to recuse himself and allow the Justice Department to come in and he needs to allow a special prosecutor to be appointed to this case,” she said.
While admitting things outside of the norm should not have happened, Councilman Pruitt said he does not think there was a systematic failure in the Cleveland Police Department. Nor does he agree at this time that the feds should be brought in to do an independent investigation.
“Everyone here is elected or appointed to these positions for a reason with the expectation that they are going to do their job professionally and objectively. As long as they do that, then I don’t necessarily think the Justice Department needs to be going in to do our work,” said Mr. Pruitt.
Activists argue that if no independent investigation by the Justice Department is conducted, the officers will not be prosecuted. The group’s plan on continuing with rallies every Friday culminating in a mass rally that will be held April 4, the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
Amir El Hajj, co-founder of a Coalition for A Better Life, which is also part of the community mobilization around the case, said activists are looking into possible human rights violations perpetrated not just against the slain couple, but against Blacks and others at the hands of law enforcement.
“We’ve been communicating with retired judges and jurists as well as community activists and organizers and we’re already looking down the road to having them (officers) tried in a community court to be decided, regardless to what happens on the county level,” said Mr. El Hajj.
“We don’t want to let the investigation take its course because we know if we allow that to happen, we know exactly what the outcome is going to be. They’re going to find a way to let these White boys off who murdered these two Black people. They’re already setting the stage,” said Mr. Boyd.
A copy of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s report can be found at http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov/BCIShootingReport.