It Couldn’t End Well (Update)

It started for mundane reasons. Two Cleveland officers, David Siefer and James Hummel, wanted to stop a 1979 Chevy Malibu because they suspected that it held drugs. They claimed the driver failed to use a turn signal, which is all that’s needed these post-Whren days.  Had the driver pulled over, this wouldn’t even be a footnote in the law. He didn’t, and a chase ensued.

From the Cleveland Plain Dealer :

Officers David Siefer and James Hummel were following the Malibu near Clark and Quigley avenues when they broadcast over police radio that they saw the passenger turn in her seat, get onto her knees and extend both arms toward the rear window as if she was holding a gun. They also thought the passenger was a man.

“He’s pointing the gun. He’s pointing the gun out the back window. Heads up. Heads up. Passenger is pointing a gun out the back window. Everybody be careful,” Siefer said.

There was no gun.  Afterward, the police tried desperately to find a gun, going so far as to use metal detectors to check storm basins for a weapon that might have been tossed from the car. No gun.  But once the call went out, adrenalin flowed. 

Sixty-two officers joined in the chase, 59 of whom had no permission to do so and violated police policy.  Whether they all wanted in on a big bust, or felt the need to protect their brother cops isn’t clear. What is clear is that the radio calls combined with the number of cops created a toxic situation that ended in the deaths of two people.

The investigation also revealed the pursuit lasted 22 minutes, reached speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, and that suspects Timothy Russell, who was intoxicated and had cocaine in his system, and Malissa Williams, who also had cocaine in her system and was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, never had a weapon.

It was destined to go bad. According to reports, the Malibu backfired several times preceding and during the chace.  It could have been gunfire. When the first officer, Wilfredo Diaz, opened fire on the car, the fusillade began.

Despite varying levels of experience, all 13 officers who fired their guns — and many who did not — told investigators they thought deadly force was needed to stop a violent encounter with two suspects who they believed were armed.

“I’ve never been more afraid in my life,” said Officer Michael Brelo, who fired 49 shots that night. “I thought my partner and I were being shot and that we were going to be killed.”

Brelo, according to his account, climbed onto the trunk and then the top of a zone car and reloaded his gun, firing rounds into the Malibu. An Iraq war veteran, Brelo said he saw “the suspects moving and I could not understand why they are still moving, shooting at us. Even through Iraq, I never fired my weapon. I never have been so afraid in my life.”

Of course, there were no shots being fired at cops, but just cops shooting at the car, and each other.

Many of the officers who heard “shots fired” broadcast over police radio mistakenly assumed the gunfire was coming from the suspects, the report reveals.

Officers recounted for investigators seeing guns, objects that looked like guns or one of the suspects loading guns in the middle school parking lot — which could not have been possible at that point in the incident. No gun was found in the car.

Believing is seeing, and the cops saw their lives flash before their eyes.  Blood pumping. Adrenalin flowing. The sound of bullets being fired. The fear of death palpable. And nearly 140 shots fired at a couple in an old Malibu.

Ohio Attorney General Mike Dewine completed an investigation of this incident, resulting in a lengthy report.  At the bottom line, it detailed a massive failure :

“We have violations all over the place, a lack of command and control,” DeWine explained.

“By failing to provide adequate structure and support, the system failed the officers,” he continued. “The number of vehicles involved contributed to crossfire that risked the lives of many, many officers. It’s a miracle officers weren’t killed.”

That miracle didn’t extent to the two in the Malibu.  Some will pass off their deaths as the consequence of the bad decision to flee, and there is some merit to the point.  Then again, people high on crack tend to make bad decisions.  It’s not good, but it hardly warrants the death penalty.  Then, group dynamics comes into play, where some inadvertent and erroneous information spread across a large group of cops, most of whom had no business being involved but couldn’t stay away, created an atmosphere where there was no choice but to shoot first.

Often, the absence of policy, or sound policy, is faulted for something like this, a massive screw up on every level.  But according to AG Dewine, they had policy in place, and it just didn’t happen.  “A lack of command and control,” which means that things happened despite policy and training. The cops did what they did.  The system to stop them from doing so failed.

As this situation shows, things can spiral out of control easily, with a poor decision, a misperception, combined with the spread of fear. The First Rule of Policing kicks in, and the rest is fate.  The message of Dewine’s report is that no amount of policy or training is going to stop scared men with guns from making sure that they go home for dinner that night, even if it means that two sad, pathetic drug-addled people lie dead. 

Update: Police union president Jeff Follmer is calling on the Cleveland Chief, Michael McGrath, to take one for the team and resign.

Follmer repeatedly said that the entire situation could have been avoided if the suspects would have simply stopped their vehicle.

Follmer concluded that police officers “did their job that day” and said that no disciplinary action or demotions should come as a result.

What? Did you expect anything else?

H/T FritzMuffKnuckle


3 thoughts on “It Couldn’t End Well (Update)

  1. Jim Majkowski

    No command officers issued any directives at all? I can’t believe there was a shortage of higher ranks on the Cleveland PD payroll. And if any of those cowboys disobeyed, they should be gone. The last thing society needs is to permit someone who will not obey orders to carry a badge and gun.

  2. j a higginbotham

    How does this spiraling out of control, misperception, police go home scenario compare/apply to the shooting by LA police of two Hispanic women delivering newspapers in a medium blue pickup when they were looking for a large black male in a large gray pickup?

  3. SHG

    It’s different. In the LA pickup shooting, it was pre-emptive. Shoot first. At least here, the basis for fear existed, even if it was predicated upon a mistake that spiraled out of control.  In LA, it was a similar pick up in the vicinity of a potential target. Not even close to a good enough reason to open fire.

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