The Path Forward in the Police Shootings

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is thankful for the indictment of the officers and supervisors in the shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both of whom were experiencing homelessness.  [Full disclosure: the sister of Timothy Russell, Michelle Russell, is a board member of NEOCH and staff and board members attended the funeral of Timothy.]  This is going to be a rough path forward getting a conviction in light of a recent Supreme Court decision.  I thought that the Russell family statement was especially touching for a brother and son for whom they cared deeply. 

It is clear that there were many issues here, and the most egregious problems are now the subject of a criminal case.  The fact that Patrolman Michael Brelo fired so many times, reloaded, and got on top of the hood of the Russell vehicle to shoot down into the car is far beyond what could be considered legal self defense.  The five supervisors in the case who did nothing or did not relay information that would have improved public safety were indicted for dereliction of duty.  There has already been discipline and terminations for the police chase and the failure of supervisors to take charge of the situation.  The US Supreme Court, the law of the land in the United States, made it impossible to charge the officers for firing on the Russell car in a case that was hauntingly familiar to the Cleveland case.  The West Memphis Arkansas case, Plumholf vs. Rickard, involved a police chase of an unarmed victim and police only fired 15 times into the car.  The Arkansas case had dashcam video available, which was not available in Cleveland.  The Supreme Court in a unanimous verdict dismissed civil rights claims of the family against the police officer. 

This is going to be a tough case against patrolman Brelo for the County Prosecutor.  We are happy that these issues will be argued in an impartial court of justice.  Personally, I do not believe that the Russell vehicle was a threat to any of these officers, but we will never know because we do not have dashcam or any impartial witnesses.  I do not believe that Russell who was completely surrounded moved the vehicle when the officers had drawn their guns.  Going forward there are still some things that need to be done to assure that this never happens again:

  • The other 12 officers involved in the shooting have not faced discipline for excessive use of force while the City waited for criminal charges.  These officers need to face administrative hearings for killing Russell and Williams and endangering the lives of the other officer by firing in a semi circle.  
  • Dashcams need to be installed in every police vehicle along with the body cams in some groups of officers.
  • Police command needs to come to meet with homeless people to explain the entire situation and the changes that have been made to keep people safe.

Malissa Williams had an extremely tough life, but was quiet and scared every time I met her.  She was in and out of the shelters and had regular involvement in the criminal justice system.  We know that these legal issues involved her multiple behavior health issues.  She was a small woman who often dressed in androgynous clothing, but no one ever said she was an intimidating presense.  I never met Timothy Russell, but I know from the funeral that he was a giving personality who always had a pleasant disposition.  He did not complain and did not share his troubles or disappointments with family or friends.  Both were staying in local shelters when this police chase started in November 2012.  In the months after the shooting, many homeless people were angry and upset over the loss of Williams who was well known by the community.  There was a fear that this shooting, which began near 2100 Lakeside shelter, was a result of a police view of a largely forgotten population being punished for not submitting to overwhelming force. 

Brian Davis

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