CLEVELAND (AP) — For Cleveland’s maligned police department, the barrage began with a car chase that ended when officers fired 137 rounds and killed two unarmed black people.
Then late last year, a white, rookie police officer shot and killed a 12-year-old black boy carrying a pellet gun in a park. Around the same time, a U.S. Justice Department report slammed the entire department, outlining a string of excessive force and civil rights violations.
Somehow, despite the repeated stains, Cleveland has been spared from violent protests that have erupted in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri.
Cleveland’s politicians and community leaders are now working to make sure protests remain peaceful as the city awaits a verdict in the trial of a white officer in the deaths of the two unarmed people and a decision on whether charges will be filed in the 12-year-old’s death.
There’s nothing at this point that indicates there’s a cauldron of dissent in the predominantly black, largely poor city that’s about to boil over into violence. Cleveland and the region’s biggest concern at the moment appear to be a hoped-for march by the Cleveland Cavaliers to an NBA title.
“I think the mayor’s been very clear. We’re interested in making sure that those who want to protest for whatever reason do it in a responsible way,” said Dan Williams, spokesman for Mayor Frank Jackson. “We’ve had demonstrators them for a long time and we’ve been fair in dealing with them.”
Cleveland has worked hard to burnish its image as a decaying Rust Belt city. Downtown has become a vibrant place for people to live, work and play. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame attracts tourists from near and far, and Republicans are bringing their national nominating convention here next year. But not far away are neighborhoods ravaged by poverty and blight, and a long history of ill will between citizens and police, especially on Cleveland’s overwhelmingly black east side.
The Justice Department slammed police in December when Eric Holder, attorney general at the time, announced that a lengthy investigation concluded officers unnecessarily fired their guns, hit suspects in the head with their weapons, and punched and used Tasers on people already handcuffed.
Discontent with police has gone beyond allegations of excessive force. Six years ago, the department came under criticism following the discovery of 11 women’s bodies in a home where the stench of death hung over a poverty-stricken neighborhood for months. The victims’ families accused police of failing to properly investigate the disappearances because most of the women were drug addicts and poor.
Mayors have for decades struggled to rein in the police department. Jackson and his administration have made a very public show in the past weeks of how they’re working to keep the peace before a judge delivers his verdict for the trial of Michael Brelo in the 137-shot case.
What has helped ease the tension so far is Cleveland’s long history of electing black leaders along with a strong network of seasoned activists and clergy in the black community, said Ronnie Dunn, an urban affairs professor at Cleveland State University.
Cleveland has had three black mayors, including Carl Stokes, who in 1967 became the first black mayor of a major U.S. city. Jackson is in his third term.
“We have a black mayor, a black police chief, we have several black council people,” said Carol Steiner, who has organized protests of police in Cleveland. “It’s different from Ferguson in that way.”
It’s important to distinguish, she said, between the organized protest movement that is almost entirely nonviolent and the types of uprisings brought on by years of oppression.
“To us the more interesting question is why haven’t more people from the neighborhoods been united in large scale protests,” said Steiner, who added that she doesn’t know the answer.
Just four days after Rice was fatally shot in November, about 200 protesters blocked evening rush hour traffic, but officers simply directed commuters around the protest instead of arresting the demonstrators.
Cleveland may also have benefited from an aggressive county prosecutor willing to charge and prosecute police officers.
The 137-shot incident in November 2012 drew attention because of its sheer excess. Thirteen officers fired at a car with two unarmed suspects after a 22-mile-long, high-speed chase involving more than 100 Cleveland police officers in more than 60 cars. Brelo fired 49 of those shots, but it’s the last 15 that resulted in criminal charges. He fired those shots at point-blank range into the windshield of a car at Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Prosecutors contend Brelo, 31, intended to kill the pair even though their car had stopped and they were no longer a threat to anyone.
The chase began after Russell’s beat-up Chevy Malibu backfired as it sped past police headquarters, which caused officers to think someone in the car had fired a gun.
Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty has not spared any expense in prosecuting Brelo, committing more than a half-dozen prosecutors and thousands of dollars on expert witnesses to testify in his effort to win a conviction.
Civil rights attorney James Hardiman said McGinty’s willingness to prosecute has helped ease tensions in Cleveland.
“That obviously has played a role in appeasing some people,” Hardiman said. “But depending on the ultimate verdict, that might not keep a lid on protests.”
What will happen with the Tamir Rice case is uncertain. Outrage grew with the release of footage from a surveillance camera showed patrolman Timothy Loehmann shooting the boy within two seconds of his patrol car skidding to a stop next to him. Tamir can be seen in the video reaching for the realistic-looking pellet gun he had tucked in his waistband.
The Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department is wrapping up an investigation into the shooting it started in mid-January. Once complete, the sheriff will turn the case over prosecutors, who can charge Loehmann, present evidence to a grand jury or rule the shooting justified and not pursue criminal charges.
Seewer reported from Toledo.
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