The Cleveland Police Department announced Tuesday that six officers have been fired in connection with a fatal car chase. Mistaking the sound of a vehicle backfiring for a gunshot, the officers fired 137 bullets at a homeless couple who had been unarmed when the police shot them to death.
Around 11:24 p.m. on November 29, 2012, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were driving a ’79 Chevy Malibu when a plainclothes officer decided to pull them over for a turn signal violation. Instead of stopping his vehicle, Russell sped off driving past two more officers when his car reportedly backfired.
Mistaking the sound for a gunshot, officers began pursuing Russell’s car with the belief that he and Williams were in possession of at least one firearm. Although the chase only lasted 20 minutes, more than 100 officers and 62 patrol cars were involved in the pursuit. After a 22-mile chase, Russell pulled into the parking lot of a middle school in East Cleveland when 13 officers opened fire.
The officers fired 137 bullets at the unarmed couple. Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo fired 49 of the shots, including 15 while standing on the hood of Russell’s car. Williams was shot 24 times, while Russell suffered 23 gunshot wounds. No weapons were retrieved from the vehicle.
On May 30, 2014, Brelo was charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter. Five of the police supervisors involved in the fatal shooting were also charged with dereliction of duty. Lt. Paul Wilson, Sgt. Patricia Coleman, Sgt. Randolph Dailey, Sgt. Michael Donegan, and Sgt. Jason Edens are scheduled for trial on July 27.
One year after his indictment, Brelo was acquitted of all charges. Out of the 105 officers involved in the police pursuit, 63 received suspensions between one and ten days. Out of the 18 police supervisors involved in the chase, one was terminated, two were demoted, and nine received suspensions ranging from three to 30 days.
On Tuesday, the Cleveland Police Department announced that six officers have been fired, another six are facing suspensions, and the 13th officer involved in the shooting chose early retirement. According to Detective Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, the department terminated officers Wilfredo Diaz, Brian Sabolik, Erin O’Donnell, Michael Farley, Chris Ereg, and Michael Brelo. Six other officers were suspended without pay between 21 and 30 days, while the 13th officer retired last year.
At the request of Mayor Frank Jackson on March 14, 2013, the Justice Department began investigating allegations of excessive force and violations of the Fourth Amendment being committed by the Cleveland Police Department. The investigation included a comprehensive assessment of officers’ use of force, and CPD’s policies, procedures, training, systems of accountability, and community engagement. On December 4, 2014, the Justice Department announced that a significant amount of CPD officers used excessive force and constituted an ongoing risk to the public and their fellow officers.
Although Brelo was found not guilty, the families of Russell and Williams filed a wrongful death lawsuit and ended up receiving a $3 million settlement from the city. Despite the fact that the Justice Department announced it would launch an investigation into the deaths of the unarmed couple in May 2015, federal charges have not been filed against any of the officers.
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