Is the Cleveland Police Shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams Racist?

A November 29th Cleveland police shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, where Russell’s 1979 Chevrolet Malibu was pummeled with 137 police rounds, was a local story, but now is in the national spotlight. I heard about the shooting last night on NPR while stuck in a traffic jam, driving home from work. When finally arriving to my house, I quickly hit the internet to read up on what happened just two weeks ago; another one of these high-speed chases, but this one looks a little different.

This didn’t look right to me, so I look around for reliable sources that would give me the best objective coverage, or that would lay out the incident as carefully as possible, relying on primary sources. I was favoring the Plain Dealer, which had much more detail about the mystifying way that Russell and Williams ended up dead. Russell was shot 23 times and Williams’ body was struck 24 times. More than one third of the Cleveland police firearms discharged made their intended target. Were many of them on foot, firing directly into the beat up Malibu?

cleveland police shooting

The troubling incident begins, according to the police, at the Justice Center in downtown Cleveland (around 10:30 PM, Thursday, Nov 29th), when police thought they heard a gunshot emanating from this clunker of a car, driven by Timothy Russell. The vehicle in question is a light blue, fairly dented, 1979 Chevrolet Malibu. Apparently, this has been cleared up now, that is, the sound at least. Two people, who knew about the car, say it’s backfire, which sounds considerably like gunfire. But why did Russell flee anyway?

This is not a question I can answer, nor will it ever be possible to get an answer, since Timothy Russell is now deceased. I suspect, though, he had a great deal of fear for the police, since he’d been in a car chase before, and probably knew he’d end up back in jail, even though (purportedly) he hadn’t done anything wrong. Yea, this is pure speculation, but the idea he feared the police is rock solid. And fear can easily morph to hostility (I’ll note). A good area for investigation would be, why did he so fear the Cleveland police?

The high-speed chase lasted 26 minutes. It’s important to note, the provocation for the shooting is given as Mister Russell rammed into a squad car on two different occasions. The first time is when he was exiting I-90 and the second time is when he was cornered in the parking lot of Heritage Middle School, which is in East Cleveland. A Fox 8 piece (Officer Interviews Almost Finished in Deadly Chase, by Peggy Sinkovich) has a fairly good map outlining the entire chase. The shooting began after the second surge of the Malibu into a squad car.

Yet, I’m curious just how that exactly went down? Was it only officers who saw this vehicle surge or assault a police car? Were their officers on foot who Russell surged towards? How aggressive was it? Why did they fire so many rounds? Could they have used a bullhorn and demanded the two get out of the car? No weapon was found in the car! Russell and Williams never had a weapon in the first place. Or this is the what it looks like, after searching the bullet-riddled Malibu. The route has been inspected for weapons also, thinking the suspects might have tossed the gun out of the car (while being pursued).

Many are calling for federal intervention now, since allegations of racism are being made by people in the community. Of the 13 officers who were doing the shooting, twelve are white. This looks like a good reason to call in the Department of Justice. What really transpired that night is unclear. One might argue, the Cleveland police were predisposed to shoot the couple, since they were so pumped up from the car chase. This position is soundly argued in The Daily Beast, by Mansfield Frazier. A loud backfire is perceived as a gunshot, then all events after that are miscast as a result of hasty judgment. Or is there something else behind this?