America is being tested by a series of killings of unarmed African-Americans by white police officers, but nowhere more so than in Cleveland, Ohio.
As the city responds, largely peacefully, to Saturday’s not guilty verdict in the voluntary manslaughter case of Officer Michael Brelo, it waits to see if charges will be filed in another fatal shooting – that of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Meanwhile, the civil rights division of the US Justice Department – following up on its earlier finding that Cleveland police had a history of excessive use of force and civil rights violations – has begun looking at whether federal charges should be filed in the Brelo case.
Some see the beginnings of progress.
“This tragic experience has already forced a culture change within the division of police and a needed reexamination of the use of deadly force,” Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty said following Saturday’s verdict – a reading of the situation in Cleveland not universally shared by officials there.
“We need sweeping, systemic changes in how our law enforcement works and interacts with the community,” US Rep. Marcia Fudge, who represents the district, said in a statement. “We still have a long way to go toward racial equality and justice in Ohio, and in the entire United States of America.”
Speaking with reporters later, prosecutor McGinty looked for some good in what all acknowledge is a tragic case.
"I am convinced that this prosecution and this case will prevent future deaths of police and civilians," he said. "This case also points out that retraining is needed for returning combat veterans who serve in police departments."
Officer Brelo is a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War, a point made by defense counsel in noting that Brelo’s combat training and war experience may have kicked in – believing himself to be under fire when in fact the fusillade of gunshots around him were police bullets only.
Under the circumstances, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge John O'Donnell ruled, it was impossible to know whether Officer Brelo in fact killed Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. Both had multiple gunshot wounds.
It’s unclear what will happen to Brelo, who has been on unpaid status since his indictment and still faces administrative actions. Judge O'Donnell indicated the possibility of other charges, noting that Brelo "ran afoul of the Constitution" when he climbed onto the hood of the couple’s car after it had stopped, firing through the windshield at close range, pausing only to reload and continue firing a total of 49 rounds into the car.
In all, 13 police officers fired 137 rounds at the vehicle, many of which hit Mr. Russell and Ms. Williams – both of whom were black (Brelo is white) – after a car chase prompted by the couple’s car backfiring as it passed a police station.
In a statement following the announced verdict, Russell’s family issued a statement:
“The exoneration of Officer Brelo speaks to a complete disregard for the extreme and unnecessary force meted out against some American citizens who happen to be Black and Brown,” the family wrote. “Tim and Malissa were unarmed and they were afraid for their lives. Given the realities of racial profiling and prejudiced policing, they were fleeing to escape the very fate imposed upon them. Their tragic death serves as a painful reminder of a systemic culture of violence that we cannot, and should not, ignore.”
Among other things, the Russell family calls for required cultural and racial sensitivity training and education for all officers; improved hiring standards utilizing a vetting system that includes police employment background, mental health and stability checks; and a requirement that officers live in the city where they serve.
Federal officials made clear that their investigation of the case is separate from the broader probe of excessive use of force and civil rights violations by Cleveland police.
“We will now review the testimony and evidence presented in the state trial,” Vanita Gupta, head of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach, and FBI Special Agent in Charge Stephen Anthony said in a joint statement. “We will continue our assessment, review all available legal options, and will collaboratively determine what, if any, additional steps are available and appropriate given the requirements and limitations of the applicable laws in the federal judicial system.”
Cleveland officials reported Sunday that 71 people had been arrested during protests following the verdict, most for failure to disperse, unlawful congregation, and obstructing justice.
"We only moved into make arrests when things got violent and protesters refused to disperse," Police Chief Calvin Williams (who is black) told reporters Sunday morning. "We wanted to make sure people understand we are going to help you in this process, but if things turn violent, we will take action to preserve safety."
"Our position is going to be the same as it has been throughout this process," Chief Williams said. "Our officers will not be in riot gear unless it's appropriate. Our officers will be escorting protesters throughout the city."
In reading his verdict in the Brelo case, Judge O'Donnell noted – sorrowfully, it seemed – another Cleveland police shooting case yet to be prosecuted – that of Tamir Rice, the young boy shot and killed at close range as he played with a plastic pellet gun by a rookie officer, who apparently did not fully assess the situation and fired just seconds after arriving on the scene in a neighborhood park.
"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," the judge said.