Unarmed black couple shot 137 times by police after high-speed chase
Last week, 13 Cleveland police officers fired 137 bullets at an unarmed black couple following a high-speed car chase. The bodies of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, were riddled with two dozen bullet holes each and their families are demanding answers. The officers involved have been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation led by none other than the Cleveland Police Department.
So far, the police version of events has raised even more questions as to what prompted the 13 officers (12 white and one hispanic according to Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath) to shoot in the first place. Cleveland’s Fox affiliate reports:
The November 29 chase was prompted by one officer’s belief that one of the occupants in the suspects’ car fired a shot at them near the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland.
During the pursuit, several patrolmen reported seeing the driver or passenger with what they believed to be a gun in their hands.
This alleged gunshot led 30 police cruisers to embark on a 22-mile long car chase lasting 25 minutes. But so far, no guns or shell casings have been recovered from the car or along the chase route. But Jeff Folmer, President of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, hasn’t lost hope, saying “Right now, we can’t find a gun, and I hope that gun shows up someday, but the officers believe that there was a gun in there.” There is some speculation that the sound police identified as gunfire was actually the victim’s car backfiring, which his minister says happened often due to a faulty muffler. Still, Police seem optimistic that gunshot-residue tests being performed by the coroner’s office, will prove them right.
But not to worry, the 13 officers feel terrible for their actions, “telling union officials the incident is one of the toughest situations that has ever happened to them,” reports Fox 8 Cleveland, a sentiment they seem to equate with the devastation and grief of the victim’s loved ones:
Family members of both Williams and Russell say they are heartbroken by the incident.
Police Union President Jeff Follmer says the incident has been tough on his officers as well.
That didn’t stop police from immediately portraying the victims as career criminals, a typical move following sensational outbursts of police violence. Timothy Russell was painted as a career criminal due to past arrests for robbery, receiving stolen property and failure to comply with the order of a police officer. The same was done to Malissa Williams for past drug-related charges.
Last night, about 150 Cleveland residents attended a public forum—held by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, Cleveland Public Safety Director Martin Flask and Police Chief Michael McGrath—to express their outrage over the killings.
As McGrath started to conclude his initial remarks, he was interrupted by Walter Jackson, Williams’ uncle.
“I know you are going to give the facts, but we want the truth,” he said. “Will these officers be brought up on murder charges?”
The crowd applauded. It grew more heated a few moments later when Charlotte Robinson, who said she was Williams’ cousin, said the police harass homeless people, which included Williams.
“They wanted to murder her,” she said. “They wanted to get rid of her and they did.”
As the audience began to applaud, members from Black on Black Crime, a grass-roots group, chanted “No justice, no peace.” Relatives of Russell asked city officials questions about why the police chased the pair and accused the police of murdering the driver and passenger. Paul Cristallo, the family’s attorney, asked officials why federal authorities are not leading the investigation.
…Before the meeting concluded, the audience counted together to 137, the number of shots fired, in front of city leaders.
At a rally protesting the killings, Malissa Williams’ uncle asked, “How many times you gotta shoot someone to kill them?”
Mansfield Frazier at the Daily Beast explains that overwhelming firepower, like the 137 bullets shot as the black couple, is a symptom of “High-Speed Pursuit Syndrome”:
It’s the “condition” police officers sometimes suffer from during a high-speed chase, when, as an ACLU spokesman once put it, they “get so angry and pumped up, and the adrenaline rush is such that … you see violence visited on suspects at the end of a pursuit.”
…according to a 2010 FBI report, someone dies every day as a result of a police pursuit, and the majority of those pursuits begin with a stop for a traffic violation. The same report found that innocent bystanders constitute 42 percent of those killed or injured in police pursuits.
While it’s certainly important to bring attention to the violence that results from high-speed chases, we must also keep in mind who is being chase. In this latest case, it was a poor black couple. But is this a trend?
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) began collecting information about police vehicular pursuits as part of a Police Pursuit Database Project in 2000. While only law enforcement can access the database, a report published in 2008 analyzes the numbers collected up to that point. The following table breaks down fleeing suspects by race. African Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians are pretty much tied.
Since we don’t know the demographic make-up of those areas, there’s no way to know if people of color make up a disproportionate number of pursuit suspects. However, black people only make up about 13 percent of the US population and Latinos about 16 percent whereas 72 percent of Americans are white. Unless the jurisdictions participating in the Database project have overwhelming populations of color, it’s safe to speculate that there may indeed be a racial disparity.
Furthermore, the report concludes that the race of pursuit suspects “has not often been analyzed” and “agencies were much less likely to complete this field.”
“Given the current concern of racial profiling related to vehicular stops, more information about both the individual and officer race could provide valuable insight for police managers working to reduce racial profiling practices.”
I agree completely because there’s no way to separate these pursuits from the broader racial disparities that plague the criminal justice system.