If you don't happen to find yourself in a crazed, steroidal, high-speed police chase, you can always access Heritage Middle School via public transit. Both the Health Line bus and the Red Line rapid terminate at the Louis Stokes station in East Cleveland. And from there, Heritage is a pleasant ten-minute walk.
The middle school has been all over the news lately; or rather, its parking lot has. According to the investigation carried out (in exhaustive detail) by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and presented earlier this month by Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Heritage lot became, for a harried 60 seconds on the night of November 29, a battleground.
And much to the chagrin of the Cleveland Police Department, it was a battleground whose combatants (they learned later) were all on the same team.
Thirteen officers discharged their firearms during a torrential one-minute window that night. Rounds were flying so higgledy-piggledy during three discrete bursts that police were caught in a crossfire of their own making. At least two officers said they'd never been more terrified in all their lives.
The putative targets were Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, the two suspects who'd chaperoned no less than 62 tailing enforcement vehicles 22 miles eastward through Cleveland and to the Heritage lot. Russell and Williams had been smoking cigarettes and crack cocaine and were, despite the officers' perceptions, unarmed. They both were shot dead.
Today, in the needling breeze of a February afternoon, the parking lot is quiet. It's a modest rhomboid on the school's north side, the asphalt inscribed with cumulous arabesques of salt. To the east, a tree-covered slope ascends and plateaus onto athletic fields. To the west, the slope abruptly falls to Terrace Hill Drive and the boarded-up homes that are, for East Cleveland, a kind of woeful flagship.
The lot's singular entrance is a long tongue abutted by a par course in fresh orange paint. At this hour, the school is full of students. The dull echoes of teachers' raised voices articulate non-specific warnings in the distance. It's their vehicles that populate the lot now. A BMW squats in the Principal's reserved space. A gold microphone dangles from the rearview.
More than two months removed, there are no errant shards of glass. There are no orphaned bullet casings. There is no blood. There are only cars, 42 all told. And that's a stark reminder, because 42 is quite a few cars – the lot's not full, but it's getting there – and it's still 20 shy of the number involved in the November chase.
When Protocol Isn't Protocol
Fifty-nine of the 62 vehicles failed to ask for permission to join the pursuit on November 29, a requirement in standard police procedure. Mike DeWine offered up the disavowal or disregard or utter disarray of protocol as prima fascie evidence of systemic failure within police leadership. Command was so incompetent and rules so thoroughly ignored, DeWine concluded, that the officers themselves should not be blamed.
On WCPN's "Sound of Ideas" Wednesday, February 6, DeWine crystallized his meaning: "If you have one officer making a mistake, or two, then it's the officers' fault. But if you have every officer making a mistake, it's the system's fault. It's the leadership's fault."
To put the number in context, a third of the police force on active duty that night were part of the chase.
DeWine summed up his diagnosis in the finale of his printed statement. It's got the moral outrage, dramatized via Underline, of a Supreme Court dissenting opinion:
"Police officers have a very difficult job. They must make life and death decisions in a split second based on whatever information they have in that moment. In a situation like this, they are under tremendous stress. But, when you have an emergency, like what happened that night, the system has to be strong enough to override subjective decisions made by individuals who are under that extreme stress.
"Policy, training, communications, and command have to be so strong and so ingrained to prevent subjective judgment from spiraling out of control."
If you ask Jeff Follmer, President of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association (CPPA), every single judgment an officer made on November 29 was sound. In a radical bit of revisionist history, Follmer characterized the pursuit as a "perfect chase." He couldn't identify a single mistake made by officers during the pursuit and its culminating shootout.
In his view, the preservation of innocent civilian life and the safety of officers were paramount. And to their credit, police vehicles sufficiently blocked roadways to prevent the suspects from injuring pedestrians and motorists.
But Follmer's literal interpretation was that because no bystanders were killed, the operation was flawless. Never mind that it was only "by the grace of God" that no officers were shot and killed at the Heritage lot. Never mind that Cleveland cops fired 137 bullets at or toward other Cleveland cops. Never mind that nearly every single one of the "perceptions" made by officers regarding Russell and Williams were incorrect. That's all irrelevant – every officer went home safe, so it was a perfect chase.
And officers love the emotional angle. They seek authority in empathy. What if it was your spouse? Or your father? They ask. What if it was your child? Wouldn't you want as many officers as possible hunting the bad guys down? Short of legally sanctioning it, most of us concede that cops chasing suspects who've attacked our relatives are entitled to a few policy breaches if it helps them out. Likewise, when an officer has been shot at, cops feel they're entitled to anything.
The day after the release of the BCI investigation, the CPPA held a press conference calling for the resignation of Police Chief Mike McGrath. The union's accusation was that McGrath has provided insufficient support for officers over the past two months. They believe that McGrath's threats to suspend, demote and terminate officers have been merely for public appeasement. Once again, they contend that they did nothing wrong.
An arsenal of police officers and their families attended the press conference, theircheers and jeers made of the commentary of a Parisian-mob-style soundtrack, which intensfied when questions zeroed in on the events of November 29.
Follmer and Brian Betley, President of the Fraternal Order of Police, reiterated five or six stock points on repeat: Officers were "just doing their job"; officers were "going to go home that night"; they "weren't going to let each other down"; this was an "unusual circumstance"; officers were forced to make "split-second decisions."
The Plain Dealer's Rachel Dissell saw through some of the rhetoric and asked whether or not an "unusual circumstance" required that every policy and procedure be thrown out the window.
Betley replied with a comment about split-second decisions. He said that if an officer's heart was in the right place, policies were more-or-less secondary considerations.
"Under that theory, isn't the split-second decision always the right one?" asked Dissell.
Betley said he hoped so.
As reporters dug their way deeper into the officers' logical holes – the press conference, in retrospect, was probably an ill-advised PR move – the gathered police in attendance injected their own opinions.
An officer was shot at, shouted several dismayed voices.
Except that's not true.
A Chase That Could Have Been Stopped
Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams never had a gun. The initial bang which two officers heard downtown – the pursuit's inciting incident – turned out to be the vehicle's backfire. The same backfiring sound occurred twice more during the chase and was never reported over radio.
Several officers also reported seeing a gun in the vehicle, a gun being "brandished" by Malissa Williams; that perception turned out to be Williams' black gloves. One officer even radioed that the suspects did not have a gun, but because of confusion over radio channels, the revelation was either not heard or not understood. At any rate, it had no effect on the chase and later police action.
Even the "particles highly indicative of gunshot residue" found on the hands of both Russell and Williams and the interior of their car revealed nothing, according to the BCI findings.
Because in the Heritage lot, so many officers were firing at such close range that particles from their guns got all over the suspects, according to DeWine.
Mark Naymik at the Plain Dealer chalks up the chase and its embulked frenzy to an unwritten police code which mandates that sticking up for a fellow officer trumps policy.
"It's the same all-hands-on-deck code that led to a massive manhunt after Quisi Bryan shot to death Officer Wayne Leon in 2000," Naymik wrote. "It's the same code that pulled more than 60 cops to a Cleveland neighborhood last month after an officer suffered a gunshot to his protective vest after struggling with a suspect."
What seems abundantly clear – and what Mike DeWine may have overlooked – is that for many of the 100-plus police personnel trailing Russell and Williams like some upbeat nocturnal funeral procession, it wasn't tremendous stress fueling their "split-second" decisions. It was adrenaline.
Except that's not all.
One thing Cleveland police officers can never be accused of is disloyalty. They stick up for each other even in the gravest circumstances. They are, above all, a fraternity.
Current police officers contend that on November 29, they thought there was a gun. They perceived that there was a gun. In fact, most of them still perceive it that way. They don't buy the backfiring story. Nor (from their experience with forensic evidence) do they believe that gun particles would appear in the suspects' car to the extent that they did unless there had been a gun inside the vehicle with them.
Perception (like memory) turns out to be a really complicated and sort of impenetrable defense – especially because, in this case, only one officer had to perceive something incorrectly before it was broadcast over a radio where everyone was tuned in. And that actually reflects favorably on cops: It suggests that not once during the 22-mile chase did officers make the morally troubling mental shift from pursuing a criminal to pursuing a criminal anyway. Not once did they stray from the task at hand: stop the car.
Only problem is, they weren't allowed to.
Conversations with current police officers reveal that the department's pursuit policy puts them in an incredibly disadvantaged position.
"All we can do is chase them around until they crash into something," said one. "We don't have the physical tools or the policy tools on our side."
The officer is referring to the inaccessibility of helicopters and stop strips during the chase, and also the policy requirement that forbids them from "pitting" a fleeing car. That maneuver has a police cruiser bumping the backside of a vehicle in an attempt to spin it, stall the engine or cause a collision to stop a chase, and it's a maneuver that's widely and successfully used across the country.
"Who cares if you break a light pole," said the officer. "Who cares if your cruiser gets a little black kiss on the bumper? Now, that suspect won't go hit a kid."
So while the media has latched on to the bloated chase proceedings – all those cars! -- no one has acknowledged that every single vehicle actually followed protocol by not forcibly stopping Russell and Williams during the chase. Many of them were tempted to try.
Hands Tied, Stand Down
Officers acknowledge that there were policy infractions regarding permission to join the pursuit, but they say that that particular policy has often just been a formality. It's not so much asking as it is announcing. And during an emergency situation, when all cars switch to the same radio channel, they don't want to clog the airways with repeated announcements when key developments could be circulating about the suspects.
Cops say the books were cooked regarding the numbers, and in truth, the BCI report can be misleading. Of the 62 vehicles it mentions, 12 weren't even Cleveland police cruisers and seven weren'tdirectly involved in the chase. They were waiting at the edge of a bordering district in the event the cars came south.
But cops have been hammered by the ACLU and citizen activists more for the use of deadly force. They claim the shooting in the Heritage Lot was unwarranted, that it resembled "an execution," that it was racially motivated.
Officers dismiss those accusations. One thing they can't dismiss, though, is their proclivity to aggressively pursue suspects when one of their own has been victimized. That's the unwritten code Naymik hypothesized.
Officers attest that when it comes to safety, there's no difference between a police officer, the Mayor, or a homeless person on the street. But the high-profile pursuits have only occurred when an officer's safety was in question.
And there's a reason why:
Follmer has said that morale in the department is at an all-time low. A lot of that has to do with McGrath, who has long since lost the support of the rank and file. Some of that also has to do with the culture of the force as a whole, which many officers feel discourages pro-active policing. They feel so handcuffed by potential policy violations and outcries from vocal citizens that lazy policework has become incentivized.
"We get paid the same for driving around and making a few traffic stops as we do for going out there and getting heads," said one frustrated patrolman. "What's the point when we're just going to get reprimanded? It's damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Most chases are immediately called off before they even get underway for a variety of reasons. Career criminals predisposed to flee from the cops know they'll only be pursued for a matter of minutes. And if the pursuit is over a traffic charge or another lowly misdemeanor, cops will almost always pull back.
Lack of Oversight, Lack of Communication, Lack of Everything
Detached. Absent. Unaware. Disconnected. Head in the sand.
Those are ways Cleveland cops describe Chief McGrath. He has little idea what happens on the streets, little idea what his officers are equipped with, they contend.
Safety Director Martin Flask is just as bad, they say.
That's why officials can stand up in public and talk about stop strips when in reality, the department only has just over a dozen in its possession, all purchased over a decade ago, most of which are damaged and in need of repair. The rest are stored away in basements or in the trunks of supervisors' cars.
In an urban setting, stop strips are impractical anyway, what with sidewalks and side streets making for easy avoidance.
"Giving us 12 spike strips is like giving me two bullets in a fire fight," said one officer. Or why they can stand up and proclaim no knowledge of training that had cops shooting through their windshields in November when Cleveland officers had been training for just such close-range situations in a Crown Vic at the department. (With few exceptions, patrolmen don't get adequate training, they say. If you want extra training, it's on your dime and your time, unless you're in the narcotics unit, which seems to get all the money and time in the world.)
Spreading misinformation to the public is just one problem, however. Safety Director Martin Flask (who has been mighty quiet lately) is at fault, too, in poor communication with Mayor Frank Jackson's office. Why would the office be told not enough pilots were on staff to maintain full use of the department's helicopters when that's not the case, when it's a simple matter of "expensive" fuel?
Or how Jackson can say the cops have everything they need when not all cars have dashcams or computers, and police are communicating over a hand-me-down radio system purchased from another city when it had already been deemed out-of-date.
Sure, they've got everything they need.
Fingers, Fingers Everywhere
Now: The city is faced with a police leadership and a police rank-and-file playing the blame game. They've gone to such preposterous lengths as to question whether anything bad happened at all. Chief McGrath, weathered and sleepy, claims that there are no systemic flaws and good policies are in place; meanwhile, the union paints every last one of its employees without blemish and sees profit in noting that this whole circus could have been avoided if the criminals weren't criminals.
What's most bewildering is the totality with which both sides absolve themselves at the expense of the other.
By their own admission, Cleveland police field preparation is poor even compared to other departments in the state. The hidden issue, though, is not a lack of training – which there clearly is, or at least a lack of the right kind. The issue is officers' impulse to value field training over and above paperwork. It reinforces one of their favorite themes – a premium on action over policy.
"We've got to get out of the classroom," Jeff Folmer has stated more than once.
Brian Betley argued that officers really shouldn't be expected to remember specific procedures while they're out in the field. Out there, he said, they don't have the same luxury to think and process choices like they would on a multiple-choice exam.
Beg pardon, Mr. Betley?
We ought not get into what Betley's assertion presupposes as it relates to the operation of the police force writ large. But as it relates to the events of November 29, here's a dramatic takeaway: More troubling than the fact that officers didn't care about the policies and procedures they were breaking is the suspicion that they didn't know them in the first place.
Or maybe they know more than they let on. In which case, the union should spring for a public relations consultant. Officers might have gained important ground in the public eye had they, first off, cited their policies correctly – it's "exigent" circumstances which permit additional vehicles, not "unusual" – and then had reasonably outlined the ways in which outdated or frankly bad policies have precluded effective policing.
Instead, officers have backed themselves into a corner and continue pointing fingers. They're writing grammatically impoverished press releases. They're responding to name-callers in kind and are shocked that the public continues to suspect their actions. Instead of denying the fact that they've become a lethargic, insular force, why not admit it and explain why? Otherwise, some of the public will continue to perceive that they are morons.
Amid (and because of) the turmoil, the ball has fallen on Mayor Frank Jackson's court, where it tends to listlessly roll.
Next on his docket is this administrative audit that will be used to determine the scope and severity of punishments. But an audit will not improve city safety. Here's what it'll be: a conflicted, protracted mess. It will result in bureaucratic fatigue and zero consequential outcomes. Likely, the department will tout a few meaningless suspensions (and a token termination?) But the audit's principal effect will be the continued anxiety and frustration of the force.
Jackson needs to calm the storm and right the ship. He needs to gather input from key players and construct new, up-to-date protocol for emergency situations. It should include mandatory field training and periodic drills. That new protocol must be consistent with national standards – California's a good place to start. All policies must be publicized and then strictly enforced, immediately.
Jackson must assemble a team to address the technical needs of the department as soon as possible so that issues with the radios and the stop strips won't happen again. If the issues can't be reasonably parsed, new protocol for equipment acquisition and operations must be constructed as above (i.e. With input from key players, publicity, enforcement, etc.)
Jackson must work with personnel and with national help, if necessary, to create training modules for active (particularly veteran) cops to ensure that all members of the force are knowledgeable on best practices and staying current on changes in policy.
Jackson must send an audit team to the police academy to assess whether or not Cleveland's training methods stack up to national metrics. The team must leave no stone unturned, and generate a report with actionable strategies for improvement based on successful models.
These things need to happen now. Promptly and unequivocally, Jackson must step in and address the issues. And he's got to approach these changes with the right attitude – they must be viewed as necessary improvements, not punishments. The department gets nowhere if everyone continues to profess their innocence while looking for someone else to blame.
They all messed up. Jackson's job is making sure it doesn't happen again.