Authorities in Cleveland on Tuesday said they were firing six police officers involved in a 2012 chase that began with officers mistaking the sound of a car backfiring for gunshots and ended with police fatally shooting two unarmed people.
In addition to the officers who were fired, six other officers are being suspended without pay for between 21 and 30 days, officials said. Another officer retired last year.
The announcement was made at a Tuesday afternoon news briefing outlining the administrative discipline being handed down in connection with the shooting. Authorities outlined a host of violations, ranging from officers improperly firing their guns to failing to ask for permission before joining the chase.
“There are certain things that we can and can’t do in our service to the city,” Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin D. Williams said at the news conference.
The action came less than a year after a judge acquitted one of the officers involved on two counts of felony manslaughter. The judge said that Michael Brelo was not guilty in the deaths of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30. Brelo was the first of six officers to be prosecuted for charges related to the incident. He was one of the officers fired Tuesday, according to a letter addressed to him explaining the firing that was released by the mayor’s office.
The head of a Cleveland police union vowed to fight the firings and discipline, saying that the choice to punish the officers was a political one. He also defended the actions of the officers, arguing that the fault for the lengthy chase rested with Russell and Williams for driving away from police.
“Those folks had a choice to make and they didn’t make it,” Steve Loomis, head of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, said Tuesday. “They made the wrong choices.”
These firings arrive at a time of increased national focus on how law enforcement officers use force, particularly deadly force, against minorities. Russell and Williams were both black. Cleveland has gone through years of contentious interactions between police and other residents, and its police department has been criticized in a scathing Justice Department report.
In one high-profile case, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was playing with a toy gun in a park. A grand jury said last month that it would not charge the officer involved, determining that the shooting was justified.
Federal investigators said they found that officers unnecessarily fired guns at unarmed or fleeing suspects who posed no threat, pointed guns at people inappropriately and used Tasers and physical force on people who were already handcuffed or subdued. (The report noted that the majority of force used by the department was constitutionally reasonable, but said officers in Cleveland still used “excessive force far too often.)
The chase on Nov. 29, 2012, involved more than 100 police officers — more than a third of the on-duty Cleveland police personnel on duty, the Justice Department later noted — driving dozens of police vehicles on a high-speed pursuit lasting for nearly 30 minutes. In the end, the Justice Department said in its report, police cruisers surrounded Russell’s car in a school parking lot in East Cleveland, and 13 officers fired 137 shots at the car; Russell and Williams were both struck more than 20 times each.
“The officers, who were firing on the car from all sides, reported believing that they were being fired at by the suspects,” the Justice Department report stated. “It now appears that those shots were being fired by fellow officers.”
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has called the shooting “a tragedy” and said that the deadly outcome could have been avoided had Russell stopped his car sooner.
This story has been updated.