In 2012, an unauthorized police chase involving one-third of Cleveland’s police force and 59 unsanctioned officer vehicles ended with 13 officers firing 137 rounds at two unarmed black people, killing them on the spot. Only one of the 13 cops who shot at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams was brought to trial, and he was found not-guilty in May.
Now, having successfully avoided criminal charges for the deaths of Russell and Williams, who were initially pulled over for a turn signal violation, the 13 cops face termination from the city’s police department for firing their weapons. Internal disciplinary hearings initiated by the safety director began this week.
The officers also face penalties for their involvement in the car chase before firing their weapons. While they are significantly under-reported, police chases are extremely dangerous. Thousands of police chases occur every year, leaving hundreds of people — suspects, officers, and innocent people — dead. Since 1979, 5,066 bystanders and passengers have been killed.
Most chases begin with a minor infraction, like the turn signal that set off the fatal police encounter in Cleveland.
But, based on the Cleveland Police Department’s track record, it is not likely that the 13 officers will be fired for endangering the lives of Cleveland residents or using lethal force. The department has a record of turning a blind eye to excessive force cases. Officers also have a wide range of legal protections that make disciplining them for misconduct incredibly difficult.
Last December, a DOJ report detailing absurd levels of police brutality within the department concluded that Cleveland officers use “unnecessary and unreasonable” force. The report’s authors identified several reasons for this systemic failure, including “insufficient accountability” and the fact that some supervisors “endorse” excessive force. Indeed, supervisors rarely concede that a use of force incident was unreasonable.
According to the DOJ, use of force investigations are lackluster at best. In many cases, officials charged with following up on such cases ignore important “discrepancies between officers’, witnesses’, and suspects’ accounts, or discrepancies between the force described and injuries sustained by subjects, or any other available evidence.” Important documents, such as interview summaries, are frequently excluded. Detectives involved in deadly force cases pose questions that make officers’ actions seem justified and do not follow up on conflicting statements. And supervisors merely regurgitate details provided by the officers in question, when writing their official case synopses.
When use of force investigations are completed, corrective measures are weak — and rare. Most of the time, officers who are found in violation of department policy are disciplined for procedural infractions like not reporting the incident on time — as opposed to the actual amount of force used. Many cases are thrown out altogether for unspecified reasons.
Aside from departmental failures, external pressure makes it hard for punitive measures to stick. In general, police unions have a strong influence over police commissioners and boards that determine whether officers should be terminated or not. Exhaustive union contracts make officers almost untouchable. Moreover, independent mediators, or arbitrators, can overturn disciplinary decisions during secretive, back-door dealings.
Since the police chase in 2012, arbitrators have had a heavy hand in reversing punitive decisions. All told, 85 officers were disciplined but none were permanently terminated. Arbitrators helped several demoted or terminated supervisors get their former jobs back. Multiple officers had their suspensions overturned as well.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has publicly slammed the arbitration process, saying it lets bad cops patrol the streets. He’s also admitted that he has no authority over the independent actors.