Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were shot 137 times by Cleveland police officers in 2012 following a massive chase that started when a cop believed Russell fired a gun from his car. Not only did Russell not fire a weapon, but he and Williams were unarmed. They were also black and the officers were white.
The case sparked racial tensions in Cleveland, which came to a head at a community forum headed by the city's black mayor, Frank Johnson. The police department was dogged by accusations that it was racist. Some even said the incident amounted to murder. "No one in the black community believes ... that if the occupants of that car were a white male and white female, 137 shots would have been fired into the car," said a man who attended the forum, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The lawsuit was one of dozens of civil rights cases filed against Cleveland police officers or the department by people who say they were assaulted or wronged by cops in other ways. Nearly all were dismissed. The few that weren't usually were settled out of court, meaning the cases didn’t go to trial and the officers involved and the police department never admitted guilt.
Police tactics in Cleveland have come under national scrutiny in recent days after the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice over the weekend by a police officer. The 12-year-old was holding a toy gun that resembled a real semi-automatic firearm when he was shot, according to police. The department’s Police Use of Deadly Force Investigation Team is looking into the shooting.
In 2002, a boy four years older than Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in a case that challenged police tactics. Ricardo Mason, 16, was the passenger in a stolen car that was the subject of a police chase, according to court records. Two officers approached the vehicle on foot and, while trying to arrest everyone in the car, one of them shot Ricardo “without warning or justification,” according to the suit, which claimed the cops’ supervisors “failed to control” the officers. The lawsuit also claimed that evidence was intentionally destroyed in the case.
A wrongful death suit stemming from the incident was settled for $1 million, but without any admission of guilt by Cleveland police, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. A city official said at the time that it chose to settle the case so the officers involved wouldn’t be subject to individual lawsuits.
Russell and Williams were shot after a police officer said he thought he heard gunshots being fired from their car. A $3 million settlement was approved just last week in the case, which was the subject of a 2013 civil rights case, according to Cleveland’s ABC affiliate and federal court records.
The settlement did not include an admission of guilt on the part of the Cleveland police force. A criminal case stemming from the incident is pending after a grand jury indicted the officer involved on voluntary manslaughter charges. Five supervisors were also charged with dereliction of duty.
“The city settled this case with the plaintiffs to resolve the lawsuit and avoid drawn-out litigation,” a spokesman for the city said. “The settlement is not an acknowledgement of liability.”
Black residents of Cleveland said Monday they were tired of what they described as excessive police force.
"It's sad this boy is gone on the week of Thanksgiving. I'm sure he and his family were excited about the holiday. Now instead they're having to make funeral plans," Kelley Jenkins, a west side Cleveland resident, said of Rice's death Monday. "This has to stop, we need to stand up as a community and fight back."
Bryan McIntosh, a Cleveland business owner, said police need to adopt a different approach. "It's sad how this keeps happening all over the country, and again here in Cleveland," he said. "The city needs to better train its police force and teach them to respect black lives."
Nubyjas Wilborn in Cleveland contributed to this report.