CLEVELAND (AP) — Cleveland police fired a sergeant and meted out demotions and suspensions Tuesday for a car chase last year that involved five dozen cruisers, 137 rounds of ammunition fired by 13 officers, and the death of two people who, it turned out, were probably unarmed.
A captain and lieutenant were demoted, and nine sergeants got suspensions ranging from one day to 30 days. They and the fired sergeant will appeal their punishment, according to Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 8, which represents police supervisors.
Dozens of cruisers became involved in the chase without permission from superiors and with little direction, according to a state report released earlier in the year. The episode damaged the department's relationship with residents and must be repaired, Chief Michael McGrath said at a news conference Tuesday.
"That means we have to work a little harder on our end," he said. In March, the U.S. Justice Department said it was opening a wide-ranging civil rights investigation into the use of force by Cleveland police, looking beyond the chase to analyze several years of excessive force claims and police policies, training and procedures.
But the upheaval from the Nov. 29 chase alone is likely to spread through the ranks. More than 100 patrol-level officers involved in some way face disciplinary hearings beginning in July. And 13 officers who fired their weapons as the chase ended in a blocked-off school parking lot in East Cleveland face a county grand jury investigating possible criminal wrongdoing.
The chase began around 10:30 p.m. when an officer thought he heard a gunshot from a car speeding by the police and courts complex in downtown Cleveland. A parking lot attendant thought it might have been a car backfire, a theory endorsed by the driver's family.
The officer jumped into his patrol car, made a U-turn and radioed for help. The chase went through crowded residential neighborhoods, then reversed course, headed east onto busy Interstate 90 and through parts of Cleveland, and eventually into East Cleveland.
Then the gunfire erupted, 137 rounds. Driver Timothy Russell, 43, was shot 23 times and passenger Malissa Williams, 30, was shot 24 times. 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.
Of the 276 officers on duty that evening, 104 were involved in some way in the chase. Sixty police cars were involved. Police don't know why Russell didn't stop. Russell had a criminal record including convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery. Williams had convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction.
Mayor Frank Jackson, trying to defuse complaints that the deaths were racially motivated executions by police, promised to punish officers who operated "outside the box" of police procedures. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in February the chase resulted from leadership failures. "Command failed, communications failed, the system failed," DeWine said.
A state report noted the driver was legally drunk when he became involved in the chase, and both people in the car tested positive for cocaine. DeWine said they likely had been smoking crack. Many of the officers who became involved told investigators they were frightened and feared for their lives, the state report said.
The sergeant dismissed Tuesday, Michael Donegan, briefly participated in the chase last November but pulled off, parked his patrol car and failed to supervise his officers, police officials said. Donegan could not immediately be reached for comment. A message seeking comment was left at a home phone listing.
Charges against the demoted officers and the suspended sergeants included failing to supervise officers under their command or being unaware that officers were involved in the cross-city pursuit. Lt. Brian Betley, president of FOP Lodge 8, 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.
One suspended sergeant could face harsher punishment. The chief sent the case to the city safety director, who has broader disciplinary powers. The sergeant will get a new hearing, Betley said. Paul Cristallo, an attorney for Russell's family, said after the disciplinary actions were announced that it was naive to think Russell stopping his car 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.