Fault on All Fronts

After months of finger pointing over the November police chase and shooting, it's time for all parties to accept the blame

If you don't happen to find yourself in a crazed, steroidal, high-speed police chase, you can always access Heritage Middle School via public transit. Both the Health Line bus and the Red Line rapid terminate at the Louis Stokes station in East Cleveland. And from there, Heritage is a pleasant ten-minute walk.

The middle school has been all over the news lately; or rather, its parking lot has. According to the investigation carried out (in exhaustive detail) by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and presented earlier this month by Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Heritage lot became, for a harried 60 seconds on the night of November 29, a battleground.

And much to the chagrin of the Cleveland Police Department, it was a battleground whose combatants (they learned later) were all on the same team.

Thirteen officers discharged their firearms during a torrential one-minute window that night. Rounds were flying so higgledy-piggledy during three discrete bursts that police were caught in a crossfire of their own making. At least two officers said they'd never been more terrified in all their lives.

The putative targets were Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, the two suspects who'd chaperoned no less than 62 tailing enforcement vehicles 22 miles eastward through Cleveland and to the Heritage lot. Russell and Williams had been smoking cigarettes and crack cocaine and were, despite the officers' perceptions, unarmed. They both were shot dead.

Today, in the needling breeze of a February afternoon, the parking lot is quiet. It's a modest rhomboid on the school's north side, the asphalt inscribed with cumulous arabesques of salt. To the east, a tree-covered slope ascends and plateaus onto athletic fields. To the west, the slope abruptly falls to Terrace Hill Drive and the boarded-up homes that are, for East Cleveland, a kind of woeful flagship.

The lot's singular entrance is a long tongue abutted by a par course in fresh orange paint. At this hour, the school is full of students. The dull echoes of teachers' raised voices articulate non-specific warnings in the distance. It's their vehicles that populate the lot now. A BMW squats in the Principal's reserved space. A gold microphone dangles from the rearview.

More than two months removed, there are no errant shards of glass. There are no orphaned bullet casings. There is no blood. There are only cars, 42 all told. And that's a stark reminder, because 42 is quite a few cars – the lot's not full, but it's getting there – and it's still 20 shy of the number involved in the November chase.

When Protocol Isn't Protocol

Fifty-nine of the 62 vehicles failed to ask for permission to join the pursuit on November 29, a requirement in standard police procedure. Mike DeWine offered up the disavowal or disregard or utter disarray of protocol as prima fascie evidence of systemic failure within police leadership. Command was so incompetent and rules so thoroughly ignored, DeWine concluded, that the officers themselves should not be blamed.

On WCPN's "Sound of Ideas" Wednesday, February 6, DeWine crystallized his meaning: "If you have one officer making a mistake, or two, then it's the officers' fault. But if you have every officer making a mistake, it's the system's fault. It's the leadership's fault."

To put the number in context, a third of the police force on active duty that night were part of the chase.

DeWine summed up his diagnosis in the finale of his printed statement. It's got the moral outrage, dramatized via Underline, of a Supreme Court dissenting opinion:

"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. In a situation like this, they are under tremendous stress. 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.

"Policy, training, communications, and command have to be so strong and so ingrained to prevent subjective judgment from spiraling out of control."

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Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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