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Cities are Restricting Police Chases after a Shooting in Cleveland

Posted on: July 10th, 2014 by Romanucci & Blandin

Cleveland police officers began pursuing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams at 10:30pm on November 29, 2012.  The police chase required 62 police cars, 137 bullets, 13 shooting officers and ended in 2 fatalities.  The police suspected that Russell and Williams were involved in drug activity and the sound of their car backfiring led the police to believe they were being fired at.  There was no gun found in the car after the chase.  The driver, Russell, 43, had been shot 23 times and his passenger, Williams, 30, had been shot 24 times.

Two years after this chase, a debate by authorities over the deaths of Russell and Williams has spread throughout the country about car chase strategies since so many have ended in violent deaths and injuries.  In Cleveland and other cities as well, there is great debate as to how and when police officers should handle these types of pursuits.

Several states, such as Florida, California and Kansas have already changed their police chase policies due to the rising concern about public safety, excessive force claims and police liability.  The Cleveland police department has adopted a restrictive police chase policy just this year that says that a police officer may only chase a vehicle that is suspected of committing a violent felony or if the driver is suspected to be intoxicated.  Cleveland joins the national trend among police departments that are limiting their chases.

Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City has studied how police departments make their decisions for over 20 years.  He says, “Police pursuits are highly volatile situations and people make mistakes.  No one is going to argue that fleeing from the police is not wrongs.  However, it’s the police’s responsibility to make sure both their officers as well as the public remains safe while they are doing their job.”

In addition to the changes in the Cleveland police department regarding their car chase policy, as of this past January in Oakland, California, a police officer can only chase a vehicle suspected of a violent forcible crime, a crime involving the use or possession of a firearm or a vehicle suspected to contain a firearm.  The St. Petersburg police department has also changed their policy and police are no longer able to pursue anyone other than someone who is suspected of a violent felony.  In Kansas City, Kansas, police officers are only allowed to purse a driver if they have “probable cause to believe the violator has committed a felony, or misdemeanor, or traffic violation.”

Every time there is a police chase, there are numerous risks to innocent bystanders and property.  These concerns are not new, but in the last couple of years, more police departments have been reacting to these incidents by changing their policies.

Geoffery Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina has been studying police pursuits since the 1980s.  He has stated that 35%-40% of all police chases result in a crash.  Also, there is a possibility of police officers using excessive force once they have caught their suspects because of the adrenaline they are filled with during the pursuit.

Prosecutor Timothy McGinty in Cleveland determined that there was at least one officer who applied excessive force the night of the car chase in 2012.  Officer Michael Brelo faces two counts of manslaughter.  Brelo jumped onto the suspect’s hood and shot several rounds into both Russell and Williams after there had already been a ceasefire, according to McGinty.  Last month, Brelo was indicted in addition to five supervisors who were charged with criminal dereliction of duty for not being able to control the chase.

The lawsuit includes the Russell family and has been filed against the police officers who were involved in the shooting along with the city of Cleveland for “gratuitous, excessive, and objectively unreasonable force,” that resulted from this deadly chase.

The deaths of Russell and Williams have caused a few activists in Cleveland to claim that the shootings are the result of the police racially profiling African Americans in their town.  The authorities deny that this is happening.

The attorney for the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, Patrick D’Angelo, is representing Officer Brelo.  “In this particular case, the officers did the best that they could,” he said. “These events were happening in rapidly changing circumstances.”  D’Angelo also says that if mistakes were made during the chase, they should not be considered criminal actions.  He believes that the department should focus on training their officers more thoroughly and preparing them for this type of pursuit.  “Sometimes things happen,” he added. “The question is whether you are now going to destroy the lives of six officers.”

Michelle Russell, the sister of the deceased driver, is devastated that her brother’s life was taken during this pursuit.  She spoke of how her brother had struggled with drug problems but that he had long periods in which he was able to remain sober.  He was a regular at church and he worked installing tubs and tiles.  She is puzzled as to why he did not pull over for the police officers that night.  The night he died, Michelle says that her brother was homeless and unemployed.

There had been several arrests of Russell for a few different offenses, which included driving under the influence, criminal trespassing, robbery and possession of drug abuse instruments.  He had also been arrested for running away from the police on a few different occasions.  “Whatever he did that night, it didn’t warrant a death sentence,” Russell, 44, said.  She also believes that the 12 other police officers who shot at her brother should be indicted also.

Malissa Williams, the passenger in the vehicle, was shot 24 times during the chase.  Renee Robinson, William’s cousin said of the police officers involved in the chase, “All of them need to be punished for what they did. They (Russell and Williams) were scared. People get scared and do stupid stuff and keep running. But, nobody would think you would shoot them up that many times.”  Robinson said that her cousin had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and she was also homeless.  Williams’ family members said that Williams had never been violent though.  Williams had been arrested several times for felony drug possession in addition to kidnapping, attempted abduction and rape.

The toxicology reports that had been conducted on Russell and Williams found they had both consumed cocaine and a crack pipe and two lighters were found in their vehicle.

There are many people who believe that the car chase pursuit went terribly wrong and these feelings are inspiring officers to look more closely at how their pursuit policies can be changed.

The executive director of National Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Paso, said that it is not unusual for people to be arrested after a chase to claim that excessive force was used on them.  He also said that the arrested person, “has to color the manner in which they view their assertion.”  However, there has been great public pressure from families of innocent bystanders who were killed to change policies and eliminate the use of excessive force.

Dorothy Sigelmier, William’s aunt hopes that the death of her niece will lead to more changes in Cleveland and other police departments throughout the country.  “It still hurts me,” Sigelmier, 58, said. “I want people to know that they didn’t have to kill them like that.”

Cleveland police officers began pursuing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams at 10:30pm on November 29, 2012.  The police chase required 62 police cars, 137 bullets, 13 shooting officers and ended in 2 fatalities.  The police suspected that Russell and Williams were involved in drug activity and the sound of their car backfiring led the police to believe they were being fired at.  There was no gun found in the car after the chase.  The driver, Russell, 43, had been shot 23 times and his passenger, Williams, 30, had been shot 24 times.

Two years after this chase, a debate by authorities over the deaths of Russell and Williams has spread throughout the country about car chase strategies since so many have ended in violent deaths and injuries.  In Cleveland and other cities as well, there is great debate as to how and when police officers should handle these types of pursuits.

Several states, such as Florida, California and Kansas have already changed their police chase policies due to the rising concern about public safety, excessive force claims and police liability.  The Cleveland police department has adopted a restrictive police chase policy just this year that says that a police officer may only chase a vehicle that is suspected of committing a violent felony or if the driver is suspected to be intoxicated.  Cleveland joins the national trend among police departments that are limiting their chases.

Ken Novak, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City has studied how police departments make their decisions for over 20 years.  He says, “Police pursuits are highly volatile situations and people make mistakes.  No one is going to argue that fleeing from the police is not wrongs.  However, it’s the police’s responsibility to make sure both their officers as well as the public remains safe while they are doing their job.”

In addition to the changes in the Cleveland police department regarding their car chase policy, as of this past January in Oakland, California, a police officer can only chase a vehicle suspected of a violent forcible crime, a crime involving the use or possession of a firearm or a vehicle suspected to contain a firearm.  The St. Petersburg police department has also changed their policy and police are no longer able to pursue anyone other than someone who is suspected of a violent felony.  In Kansas City, Kansas, police officers are only allowed to purse a driver if they have “probable cause to believe the violator has committed a felony, or misdemeanor, or traffic violation.”

Every time there is a police chase, there are numerous risks to innocent bystanders and property.  These concerns are not new, but in the last couple of years, more police departments have been reacting to these incidents by changing their policies.

Geoffery Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina has been studying police pursuits since the 1980s.  He has stated that 35%-40% of all police chases result in a crash.  Also, there is a possibility of police officers using excessive force once they have caught their suspects because of the adrenaline they are filled with during the pursuit.

Prosecutor Timothy McGinty in Cleveland determined that there was at least one officer who applied excessive force the night of the car chase in 2012.  Officer Michael Brelo faces two counts of manslaughter.  Brelo jumped onto the suspect’s hood and shot several rounds into both Russell and Williams after there had already been a ceasefire, according to McGinty.  Last month, Brelo was indicted in addition to five supervisors who were charged with criminal dereliction of duty for not being able to control the chase.

The lawsuit includes the Russell family and has been filed against the police officers who were involved in the shooting along with the city of Cleveland for “gratuitous, excessive, and objectively unreasonable force,” that resulted from this deadly chase.

The deaths of Russell and Williams have caused a few activists in Cleveland to claim that the shootings are the result of the police racially profiling African Americans in their town.  The authorities deny that this is happening.

The attorney for the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, Patrick D’Angelo, is representing Officer Brelo.  “In this particular case, the officers did the best that they could,” he said. “These events were happening in rapidly changing circumstances.”  D’Angelo also says that if mistakes were made during the chase, they should not be considered criminal actions.  He believes that the department should focus on training their officers more thoroughly and preparing them for this type of pursuit.  “Sometimes things happen,” he added. “The question is whether you are now going to destroy the lives of six officers.”

Michelle Russell, the sister of the deceased driver, is devastated that her brother’s life was taken during this pursuit.  She spoke of how her brother had struggled with drug problems but that he had long periods in which he was able to remain sober.  He was a regular at church and he worked installing tubs and tiles.  She is puzzled as to why he did not pull over for the police officers that night.  The night he died, Michelle says that her brother was homeless and unemployed.

There had been several arrests of Russell for a few different offenses, which included driving under the influence, criminal trespassing, robbery and possession of drug abuse instruments.  He had also been arrested for running away from the police on a few different occasions.  “Whatever he did that night, it didn’t warrant a death sentence,” Russell, 44, said.  She also believes that the 12 other police officers who shot at her brother should be indicted also.

Malissa Williams, the passenger in the vehicle, was shot 24 times during the chase.  Renee Robinson, William’s cousin said of the police officers involved in the chase, “All of them need to be punished for what they did. They (Russell and Williams) were scared. People get scared and do stupid stuff and keep running. But, nobody would think you would shoot them up that many times.”  Robinson said that her cousin had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and she was also homeless.  Williams’ family members said that Williams had never been violent though.  Williams had been arrested several times for felony drug possession in addition to kidnapping, attempted abduction and rape.

The toxicology reports that had been conducted on Russell and Williams found they had both consumed cocaine and a crack pipe and two lighters were found in their vehicle.

There are many people who believe that the car chase pursuit went terribly wrong and these feelings are inspiring officers to look more closely at how their pursuit policies can be changed.

The executive director of National Fraternal Order of Police, Jim Paso, said that it is not unusual for people to be arrested after a chase to claim that excessive force was used on them.  He also said that the arrested person, “has to color the manner in which they view their assertion.”  However, there has been great public pressure from families of innocent bystanders who were killed to change policies and eliminate the use of excessive force.

Dorothy Sigelmier, William’s aunt hopes that the death of her niece will lead to more changes in Cleveland and other police departments throughout the country.  “It still hurts me,” Sigelmier, 58, said. “I want people to know that they didn’t have to kill them like that.”

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