GUNNED DOWN BY POLICE–This undated file photo provided by the Cleveland Police Department shows Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Autopsies found cocaine in the system of Williams and Russell, two unarmed people killed by police in Cleveland after a chase that ended with 13 officers firing 137 rounds. (AP Photo/Cleveland Police Department, File)
by Thomas Sheeran
Associated Press Writer
RICHFIELD, Ohio (AP) — Leadership and communications failures led to the chaotic police chase in Cleveland last fall than ended with 13 officers firing 137 rounds and killing two people who were likely unarmed, Ohio’s attorney general said Tuesday in reporting the results of an exhaustive investigation.
“It was total lack of control,” Attorney General Mike DeWine said during a news conference at the state crime laboratory.
He turned over the report to Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty, who said he would take the case to a grand jury to determine if any of the officers should face criminal charges.
Officials didn’t announce a timeframe for the grand jury review, and McGinty said he hadn’t dawn any conclusions about charges.
The report did not assign blame on any of the officers but said “systemic failures” in the Cleveland police department led to the escalation of the Nov. 29 chase and the fatal shootings of the car’s driver, Timothy Russell, 43, and his 30-year-old passenger, Malissa Williams.
“Command failed, communications failed, the system failed,” DeWine said.
Patrick D’Angelo, the police union attorney, said the shooting would be found to be justified. The chase reflects the risks officers face daily, he said.
“The driver of the car tried to run over numerous police officers, he intentionally rammed other patrol cars and officers were in fear of their life, and they did what they were trained to do,” D’Angelo said.
A key question remained unanswered: Did the two people fleeing in the car have a weapon that was tossed out during the chase? DeWine said tests on the two and their vehicle showed traces of gunpowder but it wasn’t conclusive on whether they had been armed or on whether the residue came from the extensive gunfire.
Some community leaders called the shootings racially motivated, since Russell and Williams were black, but D’Angelo said race wasn’t a factor in the chase.
DeWine described a confusing scene where dozens of police cruisers from multiple jurisdictions became involved in the chase without permission from superiors and little direction after some officers thought someone from the car had fired shots.
Then, at the end of the chase, officers positioned on both sides of the suspect’s car began firing, the report said. The crossfire led other officers to believe they were involved in a shootout with the two people in the car.
Many of the officers told investigators they were frightened and feared for their lives.
Officer Michael Brelo, according to his account, climbed onto the trunk and then the top of a patrol car and reloaded his gun, firing rounds. An Iraq war veteran, the officer said he saw “the suspects moving and I could not understand why they are still moving, shooting at us. Even through Iraq, I never fired my weapon. I never have been so afraid in my life.”
Another officer, David Siefer, radioed fellow officers to be careful because the passenger was armed.
“He’s pointing the gun. He’s pointing the gun out the back window. Heads up. Heads up. Passenger is pointing a gun out the back window. Everybody be careful,” Siefer said.
Siefer later told investigators he didn’t actually see a gun. “Despite not actually seeing a gun, Siefer broadcast on the radio that the passenger has just pointed a gun out the rear window,” the report said
Mayor Michael Frank Jackson, who has said officers who violated department rules in the chase would be disciplined, and police Chief Michael McGrath said the state’s report is among factors the city will consider as it continues its own review.
In a City Hall news conference after DeWine’s report was released, the mayor and chief emphasized that it’s not the city’s role to determine whether police were justified in using deadly force.
A separate federal review is continuing.
The chase went through residential neighborhoods and onto a freeway before ending with the car blocked in at the rear of a school in neighboring East Cleveland. It reached 100 mph and lasted 25 miles and 22 minutes.
The report noted that Russell was legally drunk when he became involved in the chase, and he and Williams also tested positive for cocaine. DeWine said they likely had been smoking crack. It wasn’t clear why Russell didn’t stop for police. He had fled an earlier traffic stop.
(Associated Press writers Mitch Stacy and Kantele Franko in Columbus contributed to this report.)