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

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A Chase That Could Have Been Stopped

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams never had a gun. The initial bang which two officers heard downtown – the pursuit's inciting incident – turned out to be the vehicle's backfire. The same backfiring sound occurred twice more during the chase and was never reported over radio.

Several officers also reported seeing a gun in the vehicle, a gun being "brandished" by Malissa Williams; that perception turned out to be Williams' black gloves. One officer even radioed that the suspects did not have a gun, but because of confusion over radio channels, the revelation was either not heard or not understood. At any rate, it had no effect on the chase and later police action.

Even the "particles highly indicative of gunshot residue" found on the hands of both Russell and Williams and the interior of their car revealed nothing, according to the BCI findings.

Why not?

Because in the Heritage lot, so many officers were firing at such close range that particles from their guns got all over the suspects, according to DeWine.

Mark Naymik at the Plain Dealer chalks up the chase and its embulked frenzy to an unwritten police code which mandates that sticking up for a fellow officer trumps policy.

"It's the same all-hands-on-deck code that led to a massive manhunt after Quisi Bryan shot to death Officer Wayne Leon in 2000," Naymik wrote. "It's the same code that pulled more than 60 cops to a Cleveland neighborhood last month after an officer suffered a gunshot to his protective vest after struggling with a suspect."

What seems abundantly clear – and what Mike DeWine may have overlooked – is that for many of the 100-plus police personnel trailing Russell and Williams like some upbeat nocturnal funeral procession, it wasn't tremendous stress fueling their "split-second" decisions. It was adrenaline.

Except that's not all.

One thing Cleveland police officers can never be accused of is disloyalty. They stick up for each other even in the gravest circumstances. They are, above all, a fraternity.

Current police officers contend that on November 29, they thought there was a gun. They perceived that there was a gun. In fact, most of them still perceive it that way. They don't buy the backfiring story. Nor (from their experience with forensic evidence) do they believe that gun particles would appear in the suspects' car to the extent that they did unless there had been a gun inside the vehicle with them.

Perception (like memory) turns out to be a really complicated and sort of impenetrable defense – especially because, in this case, only one officer had to perceive something incorrectly before it was broadcast over a radio where everyone was tuned in. And that actually reflects favorably on cops: It suggests that not once during the 22-mile chase did officers make the morally troubling mental shift from pursuing a criminal to pursuing a criminal anyway. Not once did they stray from the task at hand: stop the car.

Only problem is, they weren't allowed to.

Conversations with current police officers reveal that the department's pursuit policy puts them in an incredibly disadvantaged position.

"All we can do is chase them around until they crash into something," said one. "We don't have the physical tools or the policy tools on our side."

The officer is referring to the inaccessibility of helicopters and stop strips during the chase, and also the policy requirement that forbids them from "pitting" a fleeing car. That maneuver has a police cruiser bumping the backside of a vehicle in an attempt to spin it, stall the engine or cause a collision to stop a chase, and it's a maneuver that's widely and successfully used across the country.

"Who cares if you break a light pole," said the officer. "Who cares if your cruiser gets a little black kiss on the bumper? Now, that suspect won't go hit a kid."

So while the media has latched on to the bloated chase proceedings – all those cars! -- no one has acknowledged that every single vehicle actually followed protocol by not forcibly stopping Russell and Williams during the chase. Many of them were tempted to try.

About The Author

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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