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White, Latino police officers claim racial bias after Cleveland shooting

White and Latino police officers in Cleveland say they were disciplined more harshly than black officers

While much of the world last week was focusing on events in Ferguson, Mo., or on the case of a 12-year-old who displayed a realistic toy gun and was shot to death by a police officer in Cleveland, a different kind of confrontation involving police and race began playing out in federal court.

Nine Cleveland police officers -- eight whites and one Latino -- are suing the city, alleging racial discrimination. They say they were disciplined more harshly than black officers were in cases involving officer shootings.

Though dollar figures are not mentioned, the nine are seeking damages for lost pay, overtime and other benefits in the wake of a Nov. 29, 2012, high-speed car chase during which 13 officers fired 137 rounds at two unarmed black civilians in a school parking lot.

Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, each shot more than 20 times, were killed. The city has settled a suit by the families, who will receive $3 million.

The federal lawsuit by police in some ways is the flip side of the ongoing debate involving police actions, whose mood President Obama on Monday described as “a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color.”

In this case, however, white officers are using arguments for legal protection and rights that are more typically invoked by minorities.

In Ferguson, Officer Darren Wilson fatally shot an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9. A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson, who has since resigned from the department. The Brown family, through its lawyers, has indicated it is considering a wrongful-death suit and the federal government is investigating Wilson for possible violations of civil rights law.

On Nov. 22, a white rookie Cleveland officer fatally shot Tamir Rice, an African American, who was flashing what turned out to be a toy gun in a park, Cudell Commons.

As in the case of Ferguson, the shooting touched off demonstrations as well as national calls for better police training and closer ties to the community. Both are among the suggestions being pushed by the Obama administration.

The high-speed chase that prompted the Cleveland officers' lawsuit began innocently enough, according to the court papers. An police officer noticed a car in a section of the city that was known for drug trafficking. About 10:26 p.m., the officer, who is not part of the suit, called the dispatcher requesting information on the car.

The officer said he observed a “turn signal violation” and went to investigate the occupants on suspicion of being involved in drug activity. The officer approached the car and said he saw the passenger “screaming and acting unstable." Before he could make contact with the vehicle, it drove off.

The car zoomed by the municipal building, where officers heard a loud bang they believed to be a gunshot directed at them. Others later said they heard the noise, which was described in the papers as "consistent with a gunshot.”

An officer called in the incident, saying two black males shot at him from a vehicle. It was later found that the passenger was a woman, but the element of a shot fired at an officer was on the airwaves.

Attempts to stop the car were ignored. At its peak, the 25-minute chase reached speeds of more than 100 mph. A minimum of 62 police vehicles from at least five police agencies were in pursuit or following along the route, according to the suit.

The chase ended in the parking lot of Heritage Middle School, where police and the suspects played out a tragedy of errors, including one police car making “inadvertent contact” with the suspects’ car. Shots were fired -- by police -- but other officers at the scene thought it was from the suspects.

“All of the plaintiffs felt as though they had no other choice than to discharge their firearms in order to deal with what they believe to be an imminent threat to their safety and the safety of other officers,” the suit notes.

No weapons were found in the car.

The incident was investigated by Ohio Atty. Gen. Mike DeWine, who was critical of the suspects and police.

“To state the obvious, the chase would have ended without tragic results if Timothy Russell had simply stopped the car in response to the police pursuit,” DeWine said as he released the report in February 2013. “Perhaps the alcohol and cocaine in his system impaired his judgment. We will never know.”

But DeWine also blamed law enforcement.

“We are dealing with a systematic failure in the Cleveland Police Department,” DeWine said, according to the suit. “Command failed. Communications failed. The system failed.”

The officers who fired their weapons were placed on three days of administrative leave and then a period of restricted duty, which is usually 45 days, according to the suit. In all, the plaintiffs said they were on restricted duty -- known as “gym duty” -- for 16 months.

Nine of the officers involved in the shooting argue the department violated protocol by ordering the officers back to restricted duty after being allowed to return to the streets in June and July 2013.

They also contend that African American officers are treated better in such discipline cases, including one in which the black officer was on restricted duty for just 45 days.

“The City of Cleveland” has “a history of treating non-African Americans officers involved in the shootings of African Americans substantially harsher than African American officers,” the suit alleges.

The officers who filed suit are Erin O'Donnell, Wilfredo Diaz, Christopher Ereg, Michael Farley, Cynthia Moore, Michael Rinkus, William Salupo, Brian Sabolik and Scott Sistek.

One white officer not involved in the federal suit is Michael Brelo, who reloaded twice and fired a reported 49 shots. He faces manslaughter charges and is awaiting trial.

In May 2014, a Cuyahoga County grand jury did not return any charges against the nine officers.

“We have yet to receive the lawsuit, but we generally doesn’t comment on ongoing litigation,” Dan Williams, media relations director for Cleveland, told the Los Angeles Times.

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