CLEVELAND — It hasn’t been a good year for the Cleveland Police Department.
A county prosecutor is investigating a deadly chase in November that involved more than 60 squad cars and ended with 137 shots fired by 13 officers at two unarmed black people. The U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing years of excessive force claims.
And a growing list of complaints about the handling of missing person cases and rape investigations culminated with the escape of three women who had been held captive and raped for more than a decade. They were freed not because police cracked the case, but because one victim kicked out a door and yelled to neighbors for help.
The turmoil has hurt police morale, invigorated a mayoral campaign and led to frank discussions about the divide between the majority black residents of one of the nation’s poorest cities and a police department critics say is too quick to use force in some cases and lackadaisical in other respects.
The cases have harmed the police department’s standing in the eyes of residents, mayoral spokeswoman Maureen Harper said in a recent video presentation in Columbus on handling public information issues. “Overall, quite frankly,” she said, “our image was not good.”
Discontent with the police department has led to protests against the administration — including one featuring several dozen people chanting inside city hall and another outside the courts building — and angry letters to the editor. One compared the wild chase to a Bonnie and Clyde getaway.
The chase, with more than a third of on-duty officers participating, began when one officer thought he heard a gunshot from a car speeding by police headquarters. It ended in a blocked-off parking lot, with driver Timothy Russell shot 23 times and passenger Malissa Williams shot 24 times.
Both victims were black, and no weapon was found. In a well-integrated police force, the makeup of the officers who fired raised the issue of race — 12 are white and one is Hispanic.
Any wrongdoing during the chase resulted from the failure of officers to comply with departmental rules, Mayor Frank Jackson and Police Chief Michael McGrath said, while the state attorney general criticized a “systemic failure” of communication and command.
Disciplinary hearings were held for more than 100 officers accused of joining the chase without permission, failure to manage officers or other departmental violations. A sergeant who was fired is appealing the dismissal.