Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Cleveland Police Officers Disciplined After Unarmed Couple Shot 47 Times

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams

Seventy five of Cleveland’s finest will be disciplined after investigation into the shooting deaths of two unarmed people showed a massive fail in standard operating police procedure. Nineteen of those face suspension for offenses ranging from engaging in a chase without permission to providing false information on police reports.

At 10:30 p.m. on November 29, 2012, an officer outside the Cuyahoga County Justice Center reportedly heard a gunshot fired from the passing vehicle of Timothy Russell, 43, who was driving in a car with Malissa Williams, 30. The car only moments before fled the scene of a regular traffic stop. The officer called it in, kicking off a chaotic 26-minute, high-speed chase involving 60 police vehicles, 75 cops, spanning three cities, and ending in a hail of bullets in a school parking lot. When the smoke cleared, however, they found that the dead couple was unarmed.

We may never know whether a shot was fired at the cop who called in the initial report. Authorities speculate, even though some officers claimed to have seen what looked like a loaded gun, that the car could simply have backfired. It seems unlikely that Russell would have had a chance to toss a gun away without being seen by his pursuers.

In the end, officers surrounded the Heritage Middle School’s parking lot and fired 137 shots across it, at each other it seems, striking Russell 23 times and Williams 24. Both were dead at the scene. Amazingly, no officers were shot.

According to information released by Attorney General Mike DeWine in February 2013, the overwhelming amount of gunpowder residue both in the car and on the victims hands could easily have been explained by their having been shot so many times and at such close range. The tests results were ruled inconclusive.

Police further theorize that Russell rabbited because both he and Williams were drunk and high at the time. Toxicology results on the bodies showed that Russell’s blood alcohol content was .131, above the legal limit of .08. Both passengers were found to have low-levels of cocaine in their systems, which was of concern to investigators because according to Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Thomas Gilson, “Cocaine’s presence is always relevant because at any level it has physiological effects on a person.” Gilson added that traces of marijuana found in Williams’ system were likely days old, and would have had no effect on her state of mind at the time of the chase.

Unfortunately both bodies were refrigerated until December 1, so the toxicology test results may not be accurate.

Attorney General Mike DeWine announced in February that the deaths of Russell and Williams were caused by “a systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department: Command fail, communications fail, a system fail.”

Regulations stating that no more than two police vehicles can participate in a pursuit without explicit permission were violated; pursuing officers were using multiple frequencies, so orders to break off the pursuit were not universally heard, sector supervisors were not kept abreast of the developing situation and thus failed to control it which, among other things, resulted in a dangerous cross-fire situation being created that could have cost officers’ lives.

DeWine summed up, “This is a tragedy – a tragedy for Timothy Russell, a tragedy for Malissa Williams, and a tragedy for their families.  This has also been very tough for each of the law enforcement officers involved.”

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