Police Criticized For Firing 137 Shots In Car Chase

Some Cleveland residents are calling for a federal investigation following a lengthy car chase that ended badly. Police fired more than 100 rounds at a stopped car, killing the driver and passenger. Some in the community are troubled by what they say are racial overtones in the case.

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One hundred thirty-seven shots. In Cleveland last month, a late-night car chase culminated in police discharging their weapons 137 times, killing two people who appear to have been unarmed. Many in the community say the incident has racial overtones and are calling for a federal investigation.

From member station WCPN, Nick Castele reports.

NICK CASTELE, BYLINE: The chase began around 10:30 P.M. on Thursday, November 29th in downtown Cleveland, just outside police headquarters. An officer there thought he heard a gunshot as a car sped by, and he pursued. The chase lasted for nearly half an hour, ending near a middle school in East Cleveland, a neighboring suburb.

At least 30 squad cars converged on the car at Heritage Middle School. Thirteen officers fired 137 gunshots at the vehicle, killing the driver and his passenger. Cleveland's police chief now says that no gun was found in the car that officers opened fire on.

Family and friends of the driver say his car needed repairs and had a history of backfiring. Now, people here want answers.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon at Heritage Middle School, a few dozen people are gathering around a cluster of stuffed animals, marking the spot where Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were shot to death.

Pastor Ken Johnson prays for those investigating the shooting.

PASTOR KEN JOHNSON: And Father, anoint, God Lord, even East Cleveland's investigation team. Give them the wisdom and the strategies. And give them the integrity to say yes to truth, oh God. And Father, thank you for...

CASTELE: Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says his office will move quickly to find out just what happened outside this school.

MIKE DEWINE: And let's get that information out to the public, let's get it out to the community just as quick as we can. So this is on a fast track with us.

CASTELE: And as they wait for the state to release information, family and friends here have more questions than answers. Timothy Russell's friend, Brian Haskin, imagines how police could have handled things quite differently.

BRIAN HASKIN: I just see them walking up on the car with their guns drawn, you know, saying get out of the car, get on the ground. Get them handcuffed. You know, the way they do normal procedure.

CASTELE: Though the police officers' union didn't respond to repeated requests for comment, soon after the incident its president told reporters that the car rammed a police cruiser, prompting them to open fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)

CASTELE: At a recent community forum with Cleveland's mayor and police chief, residents expressed outrage at the number of shots police fired. Walter Jackson, Malissa Williams' uncle, thinks race played a role in his niece's death. Williams and Russell were black, and of the 13 police officers who fired their guns, 12 are white and one was Hispanic.

WALTER JACKSON: And a lot of people are saying, is this a black and white thing? Well, to tell you the truth, yes it is.

(APPLAUSE)

JACKSON: Yes, it is. It's Rodney King. It's like Rodney King, I mean to the 30th power.

CASTELE: Police Chief Michael McGrath says he trains officers to assimilate into the communities they police, and to treat all residents the same regardless of race.

CHIEF MICHAEL MCGRATH: So if they are disrespectful to whatever it may be - race or nationality - it's on them. Because they know what we expect of them.

CASTELE: The NAACP and some community groups here have called for a federal investigation. The Justice Department did investigate this police department a decade ago, over its use-of-force policies.

University of Chicago law and criminology professor Bernard Harcourt says high-speed chases often end with police using deadly force, and debates over police use of force tactics sometimes miss the point.

BERNARD HARCOURT: The goal always is to capture. This is a suspect, right? In other words, has not been found guilty, has not been sentenced, has not been sentenced to death.

CASTELE: Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson says it could be months before a final report is released. For their part, community groups here promise they won't give up pressing for answers.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland.

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