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Cleveland Police Chase Policy Comes Under Scrutiny By City Council

Cleveland City Council's public safety committee discussed the city's police pursuit policy at its March, 17 meeting.
photo of cleveland city council

Cleveland Chief of Police Calvin Williams defended his department’s police pursuit policy during a meeting of Cleveland City Council's public safety committee Wednesday.

His appearance came five days after council members publicly questioned whether the rules governing police chases made it possible for a recent citywide string of car jackings to continue unchecked.

Williams said loosening police chase rules won’t necessarily lower the violent crime rate.

“In this city, there are less than, probably, 100 vehicle pursuits a year, whether full pursuits or pursuits initiated and terminated,” Williams said. “We have thousands of violent crimes a year, so I don’t see the correlation between pursuing and not pursuing and the level of violence in this city.”

According to the city’s General Police Orders on police pursuits, officers can only chase suspects when either a violent felony has occurred or the driver is believed to be intoxicated and the danger posed by a chase is less than the potential danger posed to the public if the suspect remains at large.

The policy includes a long list of additional rules limiting police chases and was enacted in 2015, in the aftermath of  the “137 shots” incident – a 60-car chase that ended with the death of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both unarmed, in a hail of police gunfire.

Williams told council there were occasions when officers spotted the suspects in the recent car jacking cases but did not pursue because of the risks to the public.

“The officers in the 4 th District and those bosses knew that that was a situation that would probably end in some type of tragedy if they continued those pursuits,” Williams said.

The suspects were eventually tracked and arrested with the help of cameras, patrol officers spotting stolen vehicles and a police helicopter.

“And it didn’t involve a dangerous pursuit,” said Councilman Kerry McCormack, whose West Side ward saw several recent car jackings and who participated in a press conference last week criticizing the city’s pursuit policy. “And my concern is that we didn’t act fast enough city wide.”

Council members at Wednesday’s meeting appeared split on whether the city needs to loosen pursuit rules or if the arrests last week showed exemplary police work.

Councilman Brian Kazy questioned whether all of the restrictions on chases make it, in effect, a policy banning chases.

“We all know officers who have said they can’t chase,” Kazy said. “Where’s the breakdown in the policy out of the administration to actually having the men and women out in the street actually understanding the policy?”

Williams replied, “The policy is clear. Our officers have been trained on the policy."

“This policy has been in effect since 2015," he said. "If an officer is not clear since 2015 on the pursuit policy, then we have an issue, or that officer has an issue. Because it is incumbent on all our officers to know our policies.”

According to Williams, the city will conduct a review of its vehicle pursuit policy later this year and consider changes. Council members requested that they be briefed on any potential changes.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.