With 13 Cleveland police officers firing 137 rounds and killing two people following a chase Thursday night, city leaders are seeking answers and could ask for a civil rights investigation.
Investigators did not find a gun inside the bullet-riddled blue Chevrolet Malibu SS when staff from the Cuyahoga County medical examiner’s office removed the bodies from the car Friday evening.
The driver of the car was identified as Timothy Russell, 43. Riding with him was a 30-year-old woman whose name has not been released pending notification of next of kin.
Cleveland Police Chief Michael McGrath called it a tragedy, a “very regrettable situation, not just for the community but for the Police Department,” at a news conference Friday night that also included Cleveland Safety Director Martin Flask and East Cleveland Police Chief Ralph Spotts.
Why did the department get involved in a chase for more than 20 minutes, why did 13 officers fire 137 rounds, and why did this situation occur? — those are some of the questions McGrath said he wants answered.
“It’s really with a heavy heart. I can’t tell you how much this hurts the Cleveland Division of Police,” McGrath said. “We work so hard. We worked so hard to make things good. Something like this, I’m not saying it makes us look bad because the investigation isn’t completed yet, but it’s a real challenge for us.”
At some point during the investigation, McGrath said the city will reach out to the U.S. attorney’s office and also the FBI “to ask for the assistance, recommendations from the Civil Right division.”
“Why are we doing it? Because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “And we will provide support not just for our police officers but for the community.”
Police said the chase began because the two had shot at a police officer at the Justice Center in Cleveland, causing a chase in Cleveland, Bratenahl and into East Cleveland that ended on an access road leading to Heritage Middle School.
The incident was reported at 10:31 p.m., police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia said. It ended at 10:57 p.m. She said the chase lasted about 25 minutes.
The bodies remained in the car, which had been encased in shrink wrap to preserve the evidence, until it was towed from the scene by the medical examiner’s office about 9:30 a.m. Friday.
Investigators reported through the day Friday that they believed there were two men inside the car, a possible misinterpretation because of how badly the bodies were damaged from all the rounds fired.
East Cleveland will conduct the investigation, which Chief Ralph Spotts said he expects to take a lot of time. He urged patience. The department already has received help from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, he said, and also will seek help from the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office.
Conversations over the police radio during the chase included talk that it was possible a weapon was seen and thrown from the car, Spotts said. But no shell casings were found in the car.
Radio chatter about the suspects having a pop can and not a gun also will be investigated, he said.
Spotts said that the chase ended in a dead end with a head-on collision with a police car.
McGrath said some police vehicles were riddled with bullet holes, but because no weapon was found in the suspects’ car, officials can only assume that it was a result of friendly fire.
Flask said the investigation ‘will look at the length of the pursuit, the number of officers involved and whether it was supervised properly according to department policy.
“The question I have is whether the shots were necessary and appropriate to defend the lives of the officers involved in this incident,” Flask said. ” I personally know from over 40 years of experience the challenges of police officers have in neighborhoods in the city of Cleveland. But I also know that we have policies, rules and procedures that help govern action of our officers. Officers are of course expected to make split-second decisions, but the rules and policies help govern those decisions. And that’s why I do in fact have a number of questions.”
Cleveland police said the names of the 13 officers involved will not be released for several days. They are currently on administrative leave for three days, which is standard following a shooting. They will come back to restricted-duty status.
ACLU legal director James Hardiman said he was surprised Cleveland police were involved in a long, high-speed chase in the first place.
“Sure, we don’t know all the facts yet, but we were told Cleveland police were not going to be involved in any more high-speed chases,” Hardiman said. “These obviously have risks, not only to the suspects and police themselves, but potential injuries to innocent pedestrians. In this case, it seems like overreaction by police right from the start.
“And then to fire over 100 shots is not reasonable. No shots should have been fired. Police would have arrested these suspects without a high-speed chase or firing shots. A thorough investigation should be conducted . . . at least we can hope it will.”
Hardiman said that although police have a hard job, police can be overzealous, as he believes they were in this incident.
Police from several communities including Bratenahl and East Cleveland joined in the high-speed chase. A witness said there were almost 50 police cars involved.
William Greer, who lives at Wymore Road at Terrace Road, close to where the chase ended,”” said he had just settled down to bed about 11 p.m. when he heard police sirens.
Moments later, his room was bathed in flashing red lights as 10 police cars sped by his window in pursuit of the two men.
Greer, 27, said he heard more than 50 gunshots as Cleveland police officers opened fire on the suspects’ car. He heard the car stop suddenly on the road and then gunfire.
“I heard a car smack and knew it hit something,” he said. “The next thing I heard was gunfire. Pop, pop, pop. Bang, bang, bang. I couldn’t believe how much — it must have been more than 50 shots.”
He threw himself to the floor.
“I dove down on the ground when I heard the gunfire because bullets got no names,” he said.
It’s possible that the driver meant to turn south onto Lee Road, which is about 50 feet from Wymore Road, but instead turned onto the small street that dead-ends outside the school parking lot.
East Cleveland Detective Sgt. Scott Gardner said the investigation would be long and involved. Scores of police were on the scene all night long, taking measurements, talking to witnesses and preserving the scene for forensic investigators.
“We responded to the call of shots fired and arrived to find Cleveland police on the scene,” Gardner said. “We’re tearing the scene apart piece by piece this morning. It’s a pretty complex scene.”
Classes at Heritage Middle School were canceled Friday.
There are few homes around the school, but the McGregor Nursing Home sits on a hill off Lee Road, across the street from the school.
The car had been surrounded by dozens of police evidence markers indicating bullets, shells or other pieces of evidence.
“So this is a tragedy for everybody, the community, the Police Department,” McGrath said. “And I’m so troubled that our police officers were involved in it, and I’m so troubled that those people died, their families and everything else. This is a tragedy. You try to make sense of it and it’s very difficult.”