It began, as these things often do, with a tragic misunderstanding.
On Nov. 29, 2012, at around 10:30 p.m, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams were driving a rattletrap 1979 Chevy Malibu downtown when the car backfired. A nearby police officer radioed in what he thought was a shots-fired call, setting off a chase of mind-boggling proportion.
Sixty-two police cars revved after the single Malibu, speeding faster than 100 mph. The chase ended with a car crash in the parking lot of a middle school. In 18 frenzied seconds, 13 officers peppered the Malibu with 137 bullets, killing Russell and Williams. They were unarmed.
The grotesque spectacle of the chase, its scale and recklessness, became for many Clevelanders part of a pattern of profound injustice. It catalyzed a movement that would come to be called Black Lives Matter. When one officer, Michael Brelo, was acquitted for firing 49 of the 137 shots, protests erupted downtown.
Mike DeWine, then Ohio’s attorney general, said the case represented “a systemic failure." That finding was echoed by the Department of Justice, which started an investigation of the entire police department that resulted in a consent decree to overhaul it. In 2021, voters chose to go still further, passing Issue 24, which instituted additional policy changes.
After 137 shots, Clevelanders for the first time in a long time looked critically at their police department. They haven’t looked away since.