As the feds investigate the Cleveland Police Department's use of deadly force, another story emerges of an unarmed man shot by cops in one of downtown's busiest entertainment districts

A Traffic Ticket and a Bullet Through the Chest 

As the feds investigate the Cleveland Police Department's use of deadly force, another story emerges of an unarmed man shot by cops in one of downtown's busiest entertainment districts

One year ago this month, the U.S. Justice Department announced it had opened an investigation into the Cleveland police department and its troubled history with use of excessive and deadly force. The investigation, spurred on by the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, the two unarmed suspects who were killed after Cleveland cops fired 137 shots into their car at the end of the now infamous cross-city chase that began with a routine traffic stop and ended in a hail of blood and gunfire on the east side, is still ongoing.

It wasn't the first instance of Cleveland cops using deadly force in a gray area of the law, and it won't be the last.

And while the DOJ continues its look at the department, a recently filed federal civil rights lawsuit landed on the Cleveland cops' doorsteps two weeks ago detailing abuse and unreasonable use of deadly force similar to that which initially drew the eyes of federal investigators to Cleveland.

It stems from a night a mere three months after the Justice Department's announcement — a warm, early summer evening in downtown Cleveland when a 28-year-old father turned onto West Sixth Street when he wasn't supposed to. For that, he was fined $100. But not before a Cleveland police officer put a bullet through his chest.

Slideshow
Pictures For "A Traffic Ticket and a Bullet Through the Chest"
Vincent Montague The Range Rover Surveillance camera The intersection Looking down West Sixth West Sixth and St. Clair

Pictures For "A Traffic Ticket and a Bullet Through the Chest"

Pictures from this week's cover story on the shooting of Greg Love by Cleveland Police Officer Vincent Montague

By Doug Brown

Click to View 7 slides

Greg Love and Dunja Biggins were at O'Malley's nightclub in Brook Park late on a Saturday night in June 2013 when they decided to head downtown. It was the warmest day of the year so far and a concert at Quicken Loans Arena had just let out: It was prime people-watching time.

They hopped into Love's truck and headed east towards the action in the Warehouse District. "It was wonderful, beautiful outside," says Love. "There was a concert that night -- Mary J. Blige and Anthony Hamilton -- so I knew it was going to be a beautiful summer night down there."

It was a night to see and be seen. Love -- a 6-foot, 260-pound black man, decked out in camo pants, a white v-neck T-shirt, a bomber vest, and Timberland boots -- rolled down the windows of his silver 2003 Range Rover and cruised up and down West St. Clair taking in Cleveland's busiest nightlife district.

Just before 2:30 a.m., as the bars began shutting down and patrons began pouring out onto the city sidewalks and streets, Love and Biggins became the center of attention, for all the wrong reasons.

Video from a city surveillance camera shows Love's Range Rover in the center lane facing west on St. Clair. He's positioning to turn left, pausing in the center lane at the intersection while a steady stream of eastbound traffic flows through. One car in the westbound lane comes up and takes a right. And then another one. Love – still unable to make a left from the center lane – crosses over to follow them, turning right down Cleveland's busiest nightlife block towards spots like Velvet Dog, Barley House and Rumor.

"The cars on that security camera turned right, but there were cars coming the other way that turned left onto West Sixth, that's what gave me the indication I could go. We had all kinds of vehicles making that turn," says Love.

But unlike the drivers before him, Love didn't make it through. Cleveland police officer Vincent Montague – a black man himself who's just two years older than Love, a five-year veteran assigned to the Third District Downtown Services Unit – steps into the road and out in front of the car, not letting the Range Rover pass. There was confusion about whether West Sixth was closed: a department press release following the shooting said it was closed. The multiple cars that Love saw turn and drive down it indicated to him that it wasn't.

"He's just standing there, not saying anything, he's just looking," Love recalls, wondering why the officer stopped him and not the other cars who turned seconds before him. "I'm in the truck and we're eye-to-eye connected because he's pretty tall, 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3. I'm like, 'Can I get through? Can I get through?' I'm looking, he can see my eyes, my windows were down. I don't know if he wasn't hearing me or wasn't choosing to hear me."

Love was stopped in the middle of the crosswalk next to XO Prime Steaks. Officer Montague was in front of him, a swarm of pedestrians staggering around the truck taking a peek at what's going on. A minute and a half later – with still no direction from the officer about what to do, Love says – the surveillance video shows Love giving up trying to go down West Sixth; he puts his car in reverse, slowly backs up onto St. Clair while trying to navigate traffic and avoid the swarm of mostly drunken people walking every which way across the intersection. Love straightens his car, but now he's in the middle of the intersection at a red light and a stream of people are crossing the street in front of him. He's stuck, with nowhere to go until the light turns green and the people stop crossing.

He doesn't make it across before Montague heads to Biggins in the passenger seat, pulls out his Glock 17 9 mm gun from his holster, Love says, and then walks around the front of the truck to Love's open window. The gun in his left hand, Montague reaches inside the car with his right, trying to grab the keys. But the ignition for Love's Range Rover is not on the steering column, it's between the seats; the officer is grabbing for keys but coming up with nothing.

"He's reaching in the inside of my truck and he's trying to turn the key off thinking it's up here by the steering wheel but my key's in the center console," Love explains. "So I'm sitting back with my hands up and I'm telling him my key isn't there." According to the lawsuit, the officer gives up on trying to find the keys and withdraws his hand from the car.

Once he takes a step back, Montague points his guns through the window. Love's inside, leaning back with his hands up, palms facing forward next to his head and arms pinched against his torso, he says. Montague squeezes the trigger.

BOOM!

A single gunshot bursts into Greg Love's chest at point-blank range.

Panic.

"Do you realize you just shot me? You just shot me," Love recalls thinking the moment the officer's bullet went through the middle of his chest above his right nipple, ricocheting off a rib and out the side of his torso before getting lodged near his right armpit. But he wasn't dead. "I had my hands up, and I'm like, 'Do you know you just shot me? You see my hands up.'

I'm asking him if he knew he shot me. 'Why'd you just shoot me? You just shot me!' I was doing nothing wrong!"

Montague gets on his radio a moment later: "Shot's fired! Shot's fired!" he says. Other officers swarm in. Bystanders, gathering around the intersection watching the police move in, take out their cell phones and start filming. "At this time, it's a melee," Love explains. "It's just cops and lights and cameras. I'm shot, it was just crazy."

A second officer comes to the car door, stands him up and cuffs his hands behind his back. ("He told me later, 'I'm going to have to apologize to you, but when I heard shots fired, I thought that you were the one doing the shooting,'" Love says of the second cop. "The cop that had pulled me out of the vehicle, he told me, 'You're lucky, because if it was me, you woulda been dead, man; we're trained to kill.'")

Some of the bystanders captured the chaos for their social media followers to see. One person uploaded five clips of the aftermath to Vine. "When the cuffs were on me, that's when I started feeling those feelings. Like, is this death?" he says. Blood was gushing from the wound in his chest, staining his white t-shirt a dark red, dripping down his pants and into his boots. Police made him stand up, handcuffed, waiting for EMS to arrive.

"I felt like my body was expanding, swelling," he says. "I felt like my blood was boiling, that my body was boiling. It was like I was expanding and boiling, almost like I was going to burst. I was going faint and my mind was thinking a bunch of different things: Am I going to die right now? Am I feeling death, am I about to die? All I could feel was me swelling up, my blood boiling, just really hot."

Love wasn't the only guy police dealt with that night.

Brandon Vason walked up on the commotion during his night downtown. He was an old acquaintance of Love's from back in the day, growing up across from Love's cousins in Warrensville Heights, and he knew Biggins too. They all now live within a few miles of each other in Maple Heights. So when Vason saw Love and Biggins stuck in the intersection, he hung around.

"Brandon Vason was a bystander and witness who was crossing West 6th Street when he observed Defendant Montague open fire into the cabin of the SUV while Dunja Biggins and Greg Love were seated inside, restrained by seatbelts, with their hands raised above their heads," the federal complaint says. Vason approached the truck "and made several verbal attempts to encourage City of Cleveland Police Officers" to call an ambulance. An unnamed officer approached him from the front of the car and shoved him into the crowd that had gathered around the scene, the suit says. The surveillance video then shows an officer coming from behind Vason as he's walking away and punching him in the back of the head; another cop joins in pulling him to the ground, where they both kick and hit Vason for more than 20 seconds. They cuff him, and take him to the back of a squad car as if he were under arrest.

"After being handcuffed and restrained in the back of a City of Cleveland squad car, Brandon was driven several blocks away and instructed to exit the vehicle," the suit says. "He has not been charged with a crime or given an explanation as to why he was seized by John Doe City of Cleveland Police Officer Defendants."

"They dropped him off down the hill in the Flats," says Love. "It's like the wild, wild West inside the Cleveland police department."

An ambulance arrived about 10 minutes after he was shot, Love recalls, and he was taken to MetroHealth Medical Center. Love was still confused. "I'm at the hospital, strapped in, and I'm begging them to please keep me alive, please keep me alive." They rolled him over trying to find the bullet wounds and stop the bleeding. "I'm crying and I'm begging and I'm bleeding. The feelings that were going through my body were just unbearable. I got holes in my body, I kept thinking, 'I was doing nothing, why would he shoot me? I got my arms up, why would he shoot me? What was he thinking? What was he doing?' I'm shot, I'm at the hospital, about to die."

Teams of police officers watched over him at the hospital, preventing his parents and girlfriend – who was newly pregnant at the time – from coming in, and "interrogated him and prevented him from leaving the facility for a period of several hours" the suit says.

"They're coming in, taking pictures like I'm some freak-show science experiment," Love says. "It was even getting so bad that the nurse, she was like, 'You guys can't take no more pictures of him. That's enough, no more pictures of him.'"

Police tested his hands for gunpowder residue – to see if he was the one who may have held the gun when it went off – and took statement after statement from him, including homicide detective Melvin Smith.

Hospital staff started running X-rays on him, initially thinking the bullet cleared his body. "It didn't, it was lodged in my armpit," and because the lead from the bullet would kill bacteria inside his body, he says, they decided to let the bullet stay lodged in his arm for the time being. "The doctor was saying that I'm so lucky, if this bullet ricocheted the other way, I'm dead. It hit off my rib and exited this way. It came in, hit my rib, bounced right out my side."

Hours later, police decided they weren't going to detain him and he could go, with the mere inconvenience of a bullet to the chest for his time. A month and a half later, he went back to the hospital to have the bullet taken out. "They had to literally dig down in there and find it. They found the bullet and it was humongous," he says. "It had fabric from my clothing attached to it and it had infected the inside of my arm."

Later on the morning of the shooting, Love was on his way home after Cleveland police couldn't find a charge to hold him on any longer. Within hours, Cleveland's major news outlets received a press release via mass email from the police department's public information officer. Soon after came the press release rewrites that serve as a significant portion of crime reporting in this city.

In the media, a man whose only crime was an ill-advised right turn became "a male suspect." The police officer didn't shoot an unarmed man with his hands in the air at point blank range; "the officer's service weapon discharged" during a "confrontation" and the bullet just so happened to make its way into the chest of "the suspect."

Some requisite samplings of the coverage help paint a portrait of the post-incident reporting. Via NewsNet5, under the headline, "Male suspect shot in the chest after confrontation with police in downtown Cleveland":

CLEVELAND - A male suspect was shot in the chest after a confrontation with police in downtown Cleveland.

The shooting happened around 2:30 a.m. Sunday in the intersection of W. 6th Street and St. Clair Avenue when an officer confronted a 28-year-old male attempting to drive down a closed street.

During the confrontation with the driver, the officer's service weapon discharged once, striking the male in the chest ...

In an 11 p.m. WKYC news segment that Sunday – dubbed "Weekend violence concerns tourists, businesses" – a reporter spoke over b-roll shots of places like Bar Louie in the Warehouse District: "Sixth and St. Clair is prime real estate for one of the hottest areas in downtown Cleveland. However less than 24 hours ago, it was the scene of a crime after a police officer was forced to open fire during a traffic stop."

Within two days of the June 23 shooting, it dropped out of the news. The story was done, the news cycle moved on.

That all changed when the lawsuit was filed in federal court less than a month ago.

A record documenting discipline for Officer Montague shows he was only minimally punished for shooting Greg Love in the chest, and it was because he put himself in a dangerous spot. The document reads:

Patrol Officer Vincent Montague #1227 - Improper Procedure - Reached into vehicle during traffic stop and placed himself in a position of imminent danger. Patrol Officer Vincent Montague #1227 received a three (3) day (twenty-four [24] hour) suspension with two (2) of the days (sixteen [16] hours) held in abeyance for two years.

Police and city records officials did not respond to Scene's request to inspect Montague's personnel file and disciplinary records, but the Associated Press said that after his three-day suspension, "Montague was assigned to non-sensitive work without public interaction for 45 days before being assigned to transitional duty in the sex crimes unit between September and Feb. 6."

It is unclear how thoroughly the department's Use of Deadly Force Investigating Team looked into the shooting beyond taking Greg Love's statement, photographing his wounds and testing his hands for gunpowder residue at the hospital.

Despite the fact that the shooting occurred more than eight months ago, the use of deadly force report – which is supposed to be filed each time an officer uses a weapon – was not completed by Feb. 14, when Scene delivered a written public records request to inspect it, per the police records administrator who received the request. That report coincidentally materialized at the end of last week after Scene's initial request to review it, and it's currently in the possession of the law department in City Hall for screening. As of Monday afternoon, the city's records administrators have not yet bothered to open what the police department sent over the previous week. Once they screen it, then it goes to the city's lawyers for more screening, and then back down to the records department when whatever's left could be released. They gave no timetable for how long that may take.

Officer Montague directed Scene's questions to the Cleveland police union president, vice president and his lawyer. Jeffrey Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, gave a different account of what happened on June 23.

"He caused his own injuries. It wasn't like Officer Montague just shot him," he says. "Basically, this guy was non-compliant of the officer's orders. The vehicle was pointed towards pedestrians and he wasn't listening to any verbal command that Officer Montague was giving to him, so the officer at that time felt the need to shut the car off."

When Montague was reaching in for the keys, Follmer says, Love "tugged" on his gun. Only after that tug did the officer fire his weapon.

Montague "was acting on behalf of the safety of the bar patrons and pedestrians on the West Sixth area. I don't want to call him a 'suspect' but it was the individual's actions that caused this incident. Officer Montague is a good officer and felt the need to reach in and shut off the vehicle for everybody's safety. If the male would have complied with the officer's verbal orders, we wouldn't be here right now."

Greg Love does have a criminal record. In 2006, he was arrested by the Ohio State Highway Patrol: court records say "defendant did knowingly forge in writing a fraudulent State of Ohio Income check and causing such check to be cashed." In 2010, he was arrested in a sting for offering to sell "an amount less than 200 grams" of marijuana and "an amount of less than 5 grams" of "cocaine or a compound, mixture, preparation, or substance containing cocaine."

But on June 23, the biggest crime Cleveland police could charge him with to justify getting shot in the chest was an illegal right turn and failure to comply. Those charges were filed a full four months after the incident, with prosecutors dropping the failure to comply charge. He paid a $100 fine for the traffic violation and $161 more in court costs.

If Love did reach for or "tug" on Montague's gun like Follmer says, shouldn't he have been charged with a crime related to that?

"When it went to Homicide (investigators), I'm not sure what they were thinking," Follmer tells Scene. "I don't know what he said in the interview. You'd think so, yeah you would think so, I guess. I see what you're saying but I don't think it rose to a crime, if that makes sense."

Love says his decision to contact lawyers for a civil suit came only after he saw Cleveland police doing nothing but dodging his issues.

"I didn't really want to talk to any lawyers. I really didn't want to be in all of that stuff, like lawyers are a big deal," he says. "But are [the police] even going to reach out and apologize? They impounded my vehicle and belongings and they aren't even responding to me. They were only telling me I might be charged with something when I was reaching out to them after being shot. I'm reaching out to you with the utmost courtesy and respect still to this day, and you're responding back to me like, 'You're going to be charged one day, this is not done.' No apologies, none of that, like you guys don't even care. You guys used deadly force to attempt to take someone's life and you guys don't even care. It left me no choice but to reach out to someone who can handle these things."

It was only after Love contacted an attorney for the traffic violation case against him that the city released video surveillance footage of his right turn and subsequent shooting.

That video is crucial to the case, documenting the two cars turning right onto West Sixth seconds before Love was stopped by Montague. It shows the officer standing at the hood of his car in the crosswalk, Love slowly trying to back out to continue down St. Clair, Montague running up to the driver's window and then firing, and other cops punching Brandon Vason in the head and roughing him up on the ground when he was pleading for them to call an ambulance.

"I was so thankful, man, that I was underneath that camera," Love says. "This stuff is just a blessing, to be underneath a camera."

On Feb. 13, the lawyers filed a suit on behalf of Love, Biggins and Vason against the City of Cleveland, new police chief Calvin Williams, Officer Montague, and other "John Doe" police officers who responded that night. Love is seeking at least $75,000 in damages.

Nearly nine months after the shooting, Love has a newborn daughter, and the incident that could have left her fatherless is still a major part of his life, physically and mentally.

"The body does amazing things, I'm healing," he says. "But I have permanent scars on my body from this situation and it still hurts sometimes. My skin feels like it's getting pulled a certain way if I reach a certain way. I went to go see psychiatrists. Still to this day I'm doing that; it's something I have to live with and I needed to reach out to a professional to help me through this. That's very rough to live with the rest of my life. I got kids. When they ask how daddy got those scars, do I tell them a police officer shot me? I want my children to have the utmost respect for authority, so I wouldn't tell them that. But that's what I have to live with."

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