CLEVELAND – Nearly five years after two unarmed black suspects died in a 137-shot barrage of Cleveland police gunfire, five officers fired for their roles are set to return to duty this week after an arbitrator reinstated their jobs.
Meanwhile, discipline and criminal charges against some officers involved in the case remain unsettled, lingering in what a union leader and a defense attorney describe as an unfair limbo.
Five supervisors accused of dereliction of duty are on restricted duty while waiting to see whether those charges are re-filed in a different court, and dozens of patrol officers disciplined for their roles in the chase await an arbitrator's decision on whether to rescind that discipline.
Driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams were killed in a suburban school parking lot in November 2012 after a chase that reached speeds of 100 mph and involved more than 60 police cars and 100 officers. The shootings drew international attention for the ferociousness of the police gunfire and questions about how and why it even happened.
The chase started with a beat-up Chevy Malibu driven by Russell backfiring as it passed Cleveland police headquarters. The sound reverberated off downtown buildings, convincing an officer outside that he'd been shot at.
The chase ended in an East Cleveland school parking lot where Russell and Williams had nowhere to run. A patrolman fired the first shot when Russell drove toward him. Twelve other officers, believing the officer had been shot at, began firing at the Malibu in what's been described as a dangerous crossfire situation.
The families of Russell and Williams split $3 million paid by the city to settle a resulting lawsuit.
Six of the 13 officers who shot their weapons were fired, and an arbitrator ordered in June that five of them be reinstated. The exception was patrolman Michael Brelo, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter for firing 49 rounds, including the last 15 from the hood of the Malibu. A judge acquitted him at trial in May 2015.
Five supervisors accused of failing to control the chase remain on restricted duty with their cases unresolved. The former county prosecutor dropped their misdemeanor dereliction of duty charges in Cuyahoga County court, where the charges would have been heard by the judge who acquitted Brelo, and said those charges would be tried in East Cleveland. But charges against the supervisors haven't been filed there, a defense attorney said.
Willa Hemmons, East Cleveland's prosecutor and law director, said Friday that she's waiting on Judge William Dawson to decide whether to proceed and put their cases on his docket. She said the county prosecutor's office has given her the evidence gathered for the case.
"I'm prepared to go forward with the trial whenever judge Dawson gives me the go ahead," Hemmons said. "I haven't had any conversations at all with the judge. As soon as he puts it on his docket, I will be prepared to litigate it."
Dawson didn't return telephone messages Friday.
For now, the five police supervisors aren't allowed to interact with the public or earn additional money from moonlighting, and they're stripped of their city-issued handguns.
Brian Betley, president of the Fraternal Order of Police chapter that represents the supervisors, said he's frustrated that they remain "in limbo."
"There needs to be some closure to it," Betley said Friday. "Go ahead with trial or drop the whole thing and dismiss it — game over."
David Grant, an attorney for one of the supervisors, said the situation is unfair. He said it's his understanding that the office of the new county prosecutor, Michael O'Malley, wants no involvement in the case.
"They've been in limbo for years now," Grant said. "We think the case should be dismissed. It's a massive waste of taxpayer money."
Dozens of officers who received lesser discipline, such as unpaid time off, for their roles in the chase are waiting to hear whether an arbitrator decides to rescind that discipline, according to the president of the union that represents patrol officers.
Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association President Steve Loomis said the disciplinary process following the 2012 shootings has been "driven by politics and the media."
Loomis is known for his bombast in his defense and advocacy of patrol officers, but he also sounded a somewhat conciliatory note on Friday, saying some things have changed for the better since 2012.
"We need to move forward and put this behind us," Loomis said. "And keep working to make these improvements to ensure the safety of officers and the public."