Wednesday, April 24, 2013

100 Cleveland police officers may face discipline for November chase

The police cars flew by, one after another, a seemingly endless blur of blue and red lights. Watching the video in the Cleveland police command center today, city councilman Jeff Johnson whispered, “Wow,” under his breath and shook his head.

Today the Jackson Administration revealed its report on the Nov. 29 high-speed police chase and fatal shooting. Police commanders suggested that the chase will likely result in massive disciplinary action.  

Up to 100 police officers and six police supervisors may have violated the city’s vehicle pursuit policy while chasing driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams into East Cleveland,  commander James Chura said today. The city allows only two police cars to pursue a fleeing suspect, unless supervisors give approval in unusual circumstances.

Up to 69 officers and five supervisors may have also violated the emergency driving policy, which says police cannot “unnecessarily endanger the public” while trying to capture a suspect. 

"If there's any vagueness in the general police order, the duty to protect the public comes first, rather than the law enforcement mission," Chura said.

Possible discipline, still to be determined by police chief Mike McGrath, ranges from a verbal reprimand to a 10-day or 30-day suspension to firing.  A review of the police use of deadly force against Russell and Williams will come later.

Reporters, city councilmen, and city staff watched a multimedia re-creation of the 63-car, 19-mile chase using GPS locators, police radio recordings and video camera footage.  The presentation revealed several new details about the chase beyond state Attorney General Mike DeWine’s February account.

-Supervisors in the 1st, 3rd and 5th police districts ordered all their officers to terminate pursuit. Some 3rd and 5th district police apparently ignored the order and pursued the suspects into East Cleveland.

-The 2nd district supervisors, some of whom were in the chase, apparently failed to take command. They didn’t enforce the police rule that only two cars should pursue a suspect except with a supervisor’s approval. “There were supervisors from the 2nd district that had very little communication among themselves or with the officers they were supervising,” McGrath said.

-Officers appear to have risked public safety in other ways during the chase. The chase not only reached a speed of 100 mph on I-90, but one officer’s speedometer hit 125. Earlier, one officer’s dashboard camera caught him driving on the wrong side of Clark Avenue with no lights on, speeding by an approaching car and pedestrians at 69 mph.

-A policeman’s warning that the passenger wasn’t armed was broadcast more widely than previously reported. The officer radioed that the passenger wasn’t holding a gun, as other officers had believed and reported. “He has a pair of black gloves on. He does not have a gun in his hand,” the officer broadcast on the 2nd district channel. “There’s a red pop can in his hands,” he added a minute later.

“Now stating he has a pop can in his hand,” the 3rd district dispatcher relayed. “It’s not a gun, it’s a pop can in his hand,” the 5th district dispatcher said.

No gun was found in Russell's car or along the chase route. So why did the officers at the scene of the shooting seven minutes later claim they thought the suspects were armed?

One possible reason: another radio report suggested that the passenger might be reaching down for a weapon. “They’re fumbling with something up in that front seat,” came a report, a minute after the pop can broadcast. “Looks like the passenger is possibly loading a weapon.”

McGrath said officers who violated policy will be “held accountable,” and he acknowledged the 200-plus police on duty that night who followed the rules. (Several officers from the 1st, 3rd, and 5th districts obeyed orders to quit the chase.)

“We recognize responsible decisions they made, particularly under the stressful circumstances of this incident,” the chief said.

A reporter asked McGrath if he agreed with police union president Jeffrey Follmer, who has called the Nov. 29 incident “the perfect chase.”

“What you saw on the screen is factual,” McGrath replied. “I wouldn’t call this a perfect chase, no.”

Today’s report, almost five months after the chase, again shows Mayor Frank Jackson’s response to crisis. He takes a slow, steady approach, in which he won’t let anyone rush him or prod him to respond quickly to events.

Even the fact that Jackson held his press briefing an hour and a half after Ed FitzGerald announced his candidacy for governor shows how little the mayor cares about the theater of news and politics. No way was he going to postpone his press briefing a day just so FitzGerald’s ambitions could dominate the headlines.

Three city councilmen attended the briefing. Jeff Johnson left just before it ended, but I spoke to Kevin Conwell and Zack Reed as they left.

“It’s very stunning and very telling,” Reed said. “But I’m glad that the truth is transparent, and that they continue to bring out the truth in a public light.”

“When you have so many cars, what is the end in mind?” asked Conwell, chair of council’s public safety committee. “Who’s going to be a supervisor when they get to the end of the line, to tell all the other police officers to stand down, and then we’ll have at least four to five active shooters, so that you don’t have 13 active shooters?”

No one was in charge of the chase, Conwell suggested. “Who’s going to be the head officer in control?” he asked. “We didn’t have that. And that’s what I’m disappointed about. And I’ll see the police chief about it.

“When we get to this end, who’s going to be controlling the end? Especially when you have 137 shots.”

No comments: