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Nearly Two Weeks After Police Shooting, Questions Remain for Residents and Leaders

Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 10:48 PM

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East Cleveland pastors, Mayor Gary Norton and others stand at the site of a fatal police shooting. Photo by Nick Castele

It's now nearly two weeks since a high-speed police chase ended with officers firing more than 100 gunshots, killing two people suspected of shooting at an officer. A state investigation is underway, and police and civic leaders find themselves walking a thin line between empathizing with upset community members and giving investigators time to sort out the facts. ideastream's Nick Castele reports.

On a rainy Sunday afternoon at Heritage Middle School, a few dozen people are gathered around a cluster of stuffed animals marking the spot where Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were shot to death by police.

Earlier, Pastor Ken Johnson prayed for the two deceased, their families and even for the investigators looking into the case.

JOHNSON: “And Father, anoint, God Lord, even East Cleveland’s investigation team, give them the wisdom and the strategy, and give them the integrity to say yes to truth, oh God.”

In addition to detectives from East Cleveland, the county sheriff’s office and 18 officers from the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation are assigned to look into the case. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine says he intends to get answers as to why the incident ended so violently.

DEWINE: “And let’s get that information out to the public, and let’s get this out as quickly as we can. So this is on a fast track with us.”

In the meantime, family and friends of Russell and Williams want answers, too. Russell’s friend Brian Haskin walks through a different way he says police could have ended the chase.

HASKIN: “I just see them walking up on the car with their guns drawn, saying get out of the car, get on the ground. Get them handcuffed. The way they do normal procedure.”

Some Cleveland residents have said that they see racial overtones in the shooting. Both Williams and Russell were black, while of the 13 officers who fired shots, 12 are white and 1 is Hispanic.

The Cleveland police union couldn’t be reached for comment, but the union president has told reporters that officers fired only after the car rammed a police cruiser, and that none of the officers wanted to use deadly force.

The incident has re-ignited controversy over the use of force by Cleveland police. Cleveland went through a Justice Department probe a decade ago, when the civil rights division examined police use-of-force policies. Subodh Chandra was the city law director at the time.

CHANDRA: “Many of the incidents involving use of force and use of deadly force occur at night. And yet we didn’t have enough nighttime training for our officers in the dark, to be in situations where, that would be similar to what they might be facing on the street.”

The city also agreed to prohibit officers from firing at moving vehicles, unless in danger of injury or death.

University of Missouri-St. Louis criminology professor David Klinger, a former police officer, says there are limits to deadly force.

KLINGER: “You’re only allowed to use deadly force so long as there’s a deadly threat. So if I shoot someone and they drop the gun, I can’t keep shooting them.”

That’s because the goal isn’t to kill a suspect, but to apprehend them. That’s according to University of Chicago law and criminology professor Bernard Harcourt.

HARCOURT: “The goal always is to capture. This is a suspect, right? In other words, has not been, has not been found guilty, has not been sentenced, has not been sentenced to death.”

It’s too early to tell whether those questions have any bearing on the state investigation, or whether the Justice Department will become more involved in the case, as the Cleveland NAACP and others have called for.

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Courts/Crime - Fire/Law Enforcement

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