Cleveland officer Michael Brelo not guilty: How policing weighs on justice

Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo has been found not guilty in the deaths of two unarmed people in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire. The US Justice Department has determined that Cleveland police for years engaged in a pattern of using excessive force.

Marvin Fong /The Plain Dealer/AP
Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo, left, and one of his attorneys Fernando Mack, listen during closing arguments in Brelo's voluntary manslaughter trial. Brelo has been found not guilty in the deaths of two people in a 137-shot barrage of police gunfire.

Michael Brelo, a white Cleveland police officer indicted for jumping on a car hood to fire a deadly volley of gunfire at two unarmed motorists in 2012, has been found not guilty by a county judge in Ohio, reiterating the complex dynamics that make it hard to find police officers guilty of crimes committed as they carry out their duty.

The deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, both black, were included as a point of criticism in a 2014 US Department of Justice report that called for a federal monitor to oversee the Cleveland Police Department. The not guilty verdict  on Saturday comes amid heightened scrutiny and protest around police shooting deaths, including the looming outcome of an investigation into the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by two Cleveland police officers in November.

The verdict also came on a day that saw more protests in Olympia, Wash., where a white police officer on Thursday shot two black skateboarders after they allegedly shoplifted beer. Police say the officer was attacked by the two young men before he fired. Both men are expected to survive.

Given the dynamics of the 2012 shooting, the verdict reflects in part the difficulty of prosecuting police officers for heat of the moment decisions. Last year, two grand juries – one in Ferguson, Mo., the other in Staten Island – declined to return criminal charges against police officers involved in the killing of unarmed black men. Protests and riots have followed such acquittals. 

This week, a Baltimore grand jury indicted six police officers for their alleged roles in the death of a black man named Freddie Gray. Mr. Gray’s death caused two separate spasms of localized riots in Baltimore before the officers were charged.

Mr. Brelo, the Cleveland officer, was indicted for voluntary manslaughter for jumping on the hood of a car that had been under police fire and shooting repeatedly down into the windshield. Whether any of Brelo’s 15 fired bullets were the fatal blows was a key question in the trial, given that each victim received over 20 bullet wounds a piece.

Cuyahoga County Judge John P. O'Donnell also determined that Officer Brelo was not guilty of two lesser-included counts of felonious assault.

In a nod to wide legal latitude given to police officers in dangerous situations, Judge O’Donnell found that Brelo, in the heat of the moment, reasonably perceived a threat from the two motorists. He, however, “ran afoul of the Constitution” when he got on top of the car, since that’s a tactic that officers are not trained to do, Mr. O'Donnell noted. Brelo could still face other charges for his actions.

O’Donnell also said that while forensics showed that Ms. Williams received at least one fatal shot from Brelo’s gun, he couldn’t determine whether the other fatal shots also came from Brelo. Officers fired a total of 137 shots at the motorists after Russell’s 1979 Chevy Malibu backfired in front of police headquarters, sparking a dramatic chase. Brelo's actions came after the Malibu had come to a stop. Neither of the victims was armed.

The Justice Department report, which was in part sparked by the Brelo case, determined late last year that Cleveland police had for years been engaged in a pattern of using excessive force against citizens and violating people’s civil rights in other ways.

It’s not clear how people will react to the verdict. Protests against police brutality have roiled the US since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last year. The Monitor reported on Saturday that the “hands up, don’t shoot” movement has been used by protesters as far away as Jordan.

Judge O’Donnell decided to read the verdict on Saturday to reduce the risk of protests. The judge said he was well aware of the tensions around allegations of police brutality and a sense among many Americans that there’s not enough justice for unarmed people killed by police officers. O'Donnell specifically cited the Tamir Rice case as he read his verdict.

"Every week, I pass a mountain of stuffed animals left in memory of a 12-year-old that many people believe was murdered by the police," he said.

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