Back in 2012, an unauthorized car chase ended in the shooting deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, who were both unarmed. Nearly 60 police vehicles were involved in the chase, as was one-third of Cleveland’s police force. When the pursuit ended, 13 officers shot a total of 137 rounds at Russell and Williams. But before Saturday morning’s not-guilty verdict in the case against Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, Brelo was the sole person charged with voluntary manslaughter because he stood on the hood of the victims’ car and shot 15 rounds — many of which were fired after the other officers stopped shooting. In the end, Judge John O’Donnell ruled that Brelo was justified in using lethal force because he feared for his life, and said he could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Brelo’s shots killed Russell and Williams.
Even as he faced criminal charges, Brelo remained on unpaid leave pending the outcome of the investigation, and Cleveland hasn’t been able to permanently fire a single officer involved in the incident. Indeed, the ruling and events that transpired after the fatal encounter highlight just how difficult it is to discipline officers who use lethal force.
Out of 100 officers who had a hand in the car chase, 85 officers were disciplined. However, not one of the officers was permanently fired for his or her role in the pursuit or subsequent shootout, despite their tactical blunders and disregard for department rules and instructions. In 2013, 12 supervisors were penalized for various infractions, such as breaking emergency driving protocol, but many disciplinary actions were reversed. For instance, one fired sergeant was rehired after an arbitrator concluded the supervisor was wrongfully terminated. The same arbitrator decided that two demoted supervisors could also return to their previous positions. Both determinations were backed by a county judge.
On the flip side, a contingent of nine “non-African American” officers who shot at Russell and Williams filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging they were unfairly sanctioned due to their race and media bias. According to the lawsuit, the City of Cleveland subjects non-African American officers to stricter disciplinary measures. The plaintiffs point to “assignments to boring and menial tasks in the gym with no of chance overtime, secondary employment, pay for court appearances, no chance to apply for promotions or transfers to specialized units, and being prohibited from engaging in active police work as they had grown accustomed and contracted for,” after the 2012 shooting. Should they win, the officers would receive monetary compensation for damages incurred.
While it may seem unprecedented that all 13 officers who fired at Russell and Williams were allowed to continue their policing duties, that privilege is par for the course. Across the country, officers are terminated, then reinstated with back pay, thanks to police unions and the arbitration process — a problem that persists in Cleveland, according to the DOJ. Through the arbitration process, independent mediators, or arbitrators, meet to review excessive force cases to determine whether or not officers are guilty or deserving of disciplinary action. In many cases, they reverse charges and disciplinary measures.
During its investigation of the CPD, the DOJ found that very few officers are disciplined for use of force, despite rampant police brutality. In fact, most punishments were doled out for smaller procedural violations, like not completing an official report. Last February, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, decried the arbitration process, claiming the system makes ridding the CPD of troublesome officers extremely difficult. For instance, Officer Shani Hannah stabbed her boyfriend multiple times, after which she was charged with felonious assault, sentenced to 6 months of jail time, and fired. After a police union rallied for her reinstatement, however, an arbitrator decided Hannah could return to her job.
The tendency for arbitrators to overturn police attempts to impose discipline is so strong that even Washington, D.C.’s Chief of Police Cathy Lanier has lamented that she can’t fire cops. “The arbitrator also limits what I can and can’t do with them…Some of the decisions they say I have to put them back in their old assignment. So, as the Chief of Police I’m not really the one making the decisions here,” she said.
Nevertheless, in response to the DOJ’s findings, the city of Cleveland agreed to implement systematic changes to police procedures. Under the consent decree, the CPD will alter its hiring and recruitment policies, reorient its crisis intervention strategy, and push for “bias-free policing.” Every officer will be equipped with a body camera by year’s end. And the department’s progress will also be closely monitored by a federal court. But the extent to which those changes can and will impact police accountability remains to be seen, especially with the pending investigation into 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s death.