On an evening in late November in Cleveland, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were driving by the Justice Center when a loud bang came from their car. Cleveland police jumped, believing it was a gunshot. They pursued the car for 25 minutes, joined by police from various districts, to a school parking lot, where they blocked the exit and the driver tried to ram a cruiser to escape. Police fired into the car, killing Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams.
It was soon learned that Mr. Russell’s car tended to backfire, which likely happened as he drove by the Justice Center. Despite a clear police policy that no more than two cars are ever to engage in a chase, 62 cruisers were involved – 60 without permission. Calls of shots fired and guns brandished were reported across multiple radio channels, although only one channel was to be used. Police ignored radio reports that the car might have backfired and that there might not be a gun. The commander in charge believed only three cruisers were involved.
In the end, 13 officers fired 137 rounds into the car driven by Mr. Russell. One officer fired 59 rounds, most while standing on the hood of Mr. Russell’s car and shooting into the windshield. Timothy Russell was shot 23 times; Malissa Williams, 24. Both died from wounds to the head, neck and extremities. Both had drugs in their systems, likely the reason they ran from police. Both deaths were ruled homicide. All bullets and casings recovered from the scene belonged to police; no other guns or casings were ever found. The two were almost certainly unarmed. They were Black; the dozens of police involved were white, one with Hispanic background. Ms. Williams suffered from a mental disorder, probably schizophrenia.
Does this remind you of Amadou Diallo? A young immigrant man in the Bronx, unarmed, was approached by four plainclothes policemen who emerged from unmarked vehicles. They questioned him; he declined to answer and reached into his pocket. They shot him 41 times. He died. He was reaching for his wallet.
The Ohio Attorney General reported a “systemic” failure of police command, ignored policies and garbled communications. The police chief responded that there was no systemic failure because the department has solid policies in place. However, because the chief allowed an investigation, the union called for his removal for failing to support police. A union representative said that the facts were obscured by “touchy-feely” talk about policies.
The 137 shots in Cleveland represent the worst police shooting in our nation’s history, but the sounds are fading, and news reports are disappearing.
Both Cleveland and our greater society need a federal investigation into this event, and into the practices of a police department known for excessive violence and racism. This man and this woman breathed, laughed, wept. These lives had value. They meant something. Two people were shot down in the street by local officials who were out of control, and who ignored policies designed to protect the citizens they promised to serve. Accountability will not come with local or even state review. Federal investigation into these killings is, sadly, necessary.
The United Church of Christ has 5,194 churches throughout the United States. Rooted in the Christian traditions of congregational governance and covenantal relationships, each UCC setting speaks only for itself and not on behalf of every UCC congregation. UCC members and churches are free to differ on important social issues, even as the UCC remains principally committed to unity in the midst of our diversity.