Cleveland prepares for police officer’s verdict with eye on Baltimore protests

 Officials call for heightened security ahead of ruling in case of officer Michael Brelo – facing manslaughter charges after firing 49 shots into a car after a 2012 chase – as residents grow frustrated with lengthy Tamir Rice investigation.

One night in November 2012, Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo was seven hours into his shift when he heard over the police radio that a car had just “popped a round” as it passed Cleveland police headquarters downtown. A few minutes later, Brelo saw another police car chasing a 1979 Chevy Malibu and joined in the pursuit. Over the next 20 minutes, 60 patrol cars and 100 officers would be involved in chasing the car and its two occupants.

Officer Brelo was near the front throughout the chase, until police boxed in the car in a middle-school parking lot. The two people in the car, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both African Americans and unarmed, died under a hail of 137 bullets.

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 Brelo, 31, a five-year police veteran who had never fired his service revolver while on duty, shot 49 bullets into the car. The last 15 of those 137 shots came from Brelo’s Glock 17 pistol while he was standing on the hood of the Malibu, where he fired downward through the windshield of the car and into the two bodies in the front seat.

Brelo was charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter for his firing from the hood of the car, and though there were about a dozen other Cleveland police officers firing at the car in the school parking, he was the only one charged in the death. The month-long trial ended on Tuesday as both sides presented their closing arguments to a judge, who is expected to rule in the coming weeks.

Two weeks after the Brelo trial began on 6 April, Freddie Gray died in police custody in Baltimore, leading to a week of protests. The judge in the Brelo trial, Ohio governor John Kasich and Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson all indicated that the Baltimore protests have caused for further security details to be put in place once the verdict is rendered. Jackson sent out a memo last week to police officers to have their “emergency equipment” ready in case of protests.

“We are working hard to ensure that the men and women of the Cleveland Division of Police expand on the trust with the community and mend relationships where there has been mistrust. In turn, it is my hope that all citizens will come to better understand and respect our police officers and work with them to make our city the best it can be,” Jackson wrote in a letter on Tuesday, posted shortly after the Brelo closing arguments wrapped.

Kasich set up a taskforce late last year to examine fractured police-community relations in Ohio based in part on the Cleveland car chase case. At a press conference on Monday detailing some early findings from the taskforce, he said he was concerned about the possibility of violent protests in Cleveland once the Brelo verdict is returned. “Communities melt down and it takes forever to recover,” he said. “We can’t afford to let that happen.”

Judge ‘not oblivious’ to protests

Brelo opted for a bench trial, rather than a jury, so the verdict will be decided by Cuyahoga County common pleas judge John P O’Donnell alone. He has indicated that he may not decide until mid-May, in part to put a little distance between the Brelo verdict and the recent Baltimore protests.

O’Donnell said in court last Friday: “I’m only going to take the evidence of the law into account. I’m not going to be moved by outside forces.” However, as a Baltimore prosecutor indicted six officers in Gray’s death, he also added that he’s “not oblivious to things that are happening in this city and elsewhere”.

O’Donnell has a reputation as one who pays close attention to strict interpretation of the law in his case. “He tries so hard to represent both side, looking for middle ground,” Cleveland attorney Pat Ertle told the Associated Press. “Like a true judge, he analyzes and assesses almost every move and statement.”

The 50-year-old judge, in office since 2002 and elected as a Democrat throughout his career, ran for the Ohio supreme court last year but was easily defeated by a Republican judge.

Few expect O’Donnell to be swayed by the national or local mood regarding police excessive force issues, but he does seem to be concerned about the timing of the verdict. After closing arguments, O’Donnell did not say when exactly his verdict would be rendered. But given conflicts in his schedule and with National Police Week occurring next week – many Cleveland police may be traveling for memorial events and the city may not have manpower in reserve “to ensure public safety concerns are met”, the judge said – the verdict announcement would likely “be at the beginning of the week after next”.

Delay in Tamir Rice inquiry results frustrates

The prosecutors and defense lawyers painted very different reasons for Brelo’s action that night. “[Brelo] fired his weapon because he thought the occupants of the Malibu were shooting at him and he feared for his life,” defense attorney Pat D’Angelo told the court. Part of the defense’s argument has been that with 137 bullets flying during a 20-second period, combined with the stress of the car chase and flashing police lights, Brelo believed the occupants of the car were firing at him.

Cuyahoga County assistant prosecutor James Gutierrez argued that Cleveland police were operating under a “mob mentality” that night and Brelo went “way, way too far” when he jumped on the hood of the car. “It’s not comply or die,” Gutierrez told the court. “They did not deserve to die the way they did.”

Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, both had prior convictions for robbery, stolen property and drug possession. But no gun was ever found with them that night, and investigators now believe the sound that officers thought was gunfire was actually the old car backfiring. Autopsies performed found that Russell was shot 23 times and Williams 24. Both had marijuana and cocaine in their systems. The city of Cleveland paid their families $1.5m each to settle wrongful death lawsuits.

The fear of repercussions in Cleveland if a not guilty verdict comes down have heightened in recent days. The city has still not completed the investigation of the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November, and at a protest outside the courthouse earlier this week Samaria Rice expressed frustration. “In less than a second my son is gone,” Rice said. “And I want to know how long I’ve got to wait for justice. Please protest peacefully and hope for justice for our son.”

Timothy Russell’s sister, Michelle Russell, was also at the courthouse protest and urged peace in Cleveland regardless of the verdict. “I don’t think the city of Cleveland has anything to be concerned about. If Cleveland was going to do that, they would have done it when it first happened or they would have done it when police shot Tamir Rice. Cleveland is not that kind of community,” she said.

Cleveland community activists are also now questioning why it is taking so long when Baltimore filed charges in the Freddie Gray case within weeks, as did North Charleston, South Carolina, when it charged a police officer with murder less than a week after he shot an unarmed, fleeing man. The US Department of Justice filed a report at the end of last year that called into question Cleveland police’s use of excessive force in multiple case, and many are frustrated with the city’s lack of response.

“The leadership here – both black and white – always encourages people to just sit back and take it, because they keep emphasizing that protesting will just cause trouble,” said community activist and radio talk show host Art McKoy at the courthouse protest. “But people are getting tired of that. They keep seeing police here getting a slap on the wrist and the problems continue.

“I don’t think people here in Cleveland are going to be satisfied with that anymore,” McKoy said. “Because nothing ever changes.”

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