Cleveland punishes 12 officers in deadly chase

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Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson answers questions during a news-conference  June 11, 2013, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
 

by Thomas Sheeran

 CLEVELAND (AP) — The city fired a police sergeant, demoted two other supervisors and suspended nine more Tuesday for their roles in a chase in which officers fired 137 shots and killed a fleeing driver and his passenger.

The fired officer, Sgt. Michael Donegan, briefly participated in the chase last November but pulled off, parked his patrol vehicle and failed to supervise his officers, police officials said.

“I made a determination that his conduct was so egregious that it merited termination,” said Safety Director Martin Flask, who oversees police and fire.

Donegan could not immediately be reached for comment. A message seeking comment was left at a home phone listing under his name.

The union has said the shootings were justified because the driver tried to ram an officer. No weapon or shell casings were found in the fleeing car.

Lt. Brian Betley, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8 representing supervisors, said all 12 will challenge their punishment.

He called the disciplinary actions heavy-handed and the dismissal extreme. Betley said dismissal usually is reserved for drug use or drinking on the job or criminal wrongdoing.

Paul Cristallo, an attorney representing the driver’s family, said it was naive to think that if the fleeing car had stopped it would have guaranteed a good outcome.

“I just think that’s unrealistic. I think that’s unreasonable. They were fleeing for their lives,” Cristallo said. He declined to comment directly on the disciplinary actions.

Of the 276 officers on duty on the evening of Nov. 29, 104 were involved in some way in the chase.

Disciplinary hearings will begin by mid-July for most of those rank-and-file patrol officers, Chief Michael McGrath said. Hearings for 13 officers who fired their weapons will be held after a county grand jury completes a criminal investigation.

Police don’t know why the driver, Timothy Russell, 43, refused to stop. Russell had a criminal record including convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery. His passenger, Malissa Williams, 30, had convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction.

Some critics called the shootings a racially motivated execution of two black people with no evidence they were armed. Police denied any racial profiling.

Russell was shot 23 times and Williams 24 after a half-hour pursuit.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in February the chase resulted from leadership failures. “Command failed, communications failed, the system failed,” DeWine said.

The state 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.

McGrath said the episode had damaged the department’s relationship with residents and must be repaired. “That means we have to work a little harder on our end,” he said at a news conference.

A lieutenant was demoted to sergeant and a captain to lieutenant and nine sergeants got suspensions ranging from one day to 30 days. Charges against them included failing to supervise officers under their command or being unaware that officers were involved in the cross-city pursuit.

One of the suspended sergeants could face harsher discipline when his case goes before Flask.
  

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