Even before Cleveland police officer Michael Brelo‘s voluntary manslaughter trial began today, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for a police department under extraordinary scrutiny in recent months.
It began with the police department’s 137-shot barrage in November 2012 that resulted in the deaths of Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, following a high-speed chase involving more than 100 Cleveland police officers and 62 police cars. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson was so disturbed that he called in the Justice Department to investigate the department.
As a result of that investigation, Attorney General Eric Holder in December released a devastating report that details the Cleveland Police Department’s “pattern or practice” of using unreasonable force in violation of the 4th amendment, including unnecessary shootings and head strikes with impact weapons, excessive use of lethal force and “the employment of poor and dangerous tactics.” The report specifically noted how African-Americans view the department as targeting the African-American community for excessive force and brutality.
Even more explosive than the Brelo case was the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice in November 2014 at the hands of police officer Timothy Loehmann, who had been hired in Cleveland after being let go by a nearby police department for incompetency.
The nation has turned its eyes to the Brelo case to see how Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty will handle the prosecution of a police officer.
The Brelo case is getting off to a strange start after it was revealed that Brelo told investigators he couldn’t remember standing on the hood and firing the final 15 rounds of a 137-shot barrage down into the windshield – even though a rookie cop told those same investigators that Brelo talked about it days afterward.
“It’s possible,” Brelo said when questioned by investigators two weeks after the November 2012 shooting, “because I was so terrified that I was going to get run over. But I don’t recall that, sir.”
In pushing for the indictment, McGinty’s office presented dozens of witnesses, including many police officers, to the grand jury.
McGinty said that after officers fired more than 100 shots at the car, Brelo started shooting again and fired at least 15 shots, including fatal ones, downward through the windshield into the victims at close range—all while standing on the hood of Russell’s car.
“This was now a stop-and-shoot, no longer a chase-and-shoot,” McGinty said. “The law does not allow for a stop-and-shoot…Let’s be clear what happened here. (Russell) was fully stopped. Escape was no longer even a remote possibility. The flight was over. The public was no longer in danger because the car was surrounded by police cars and 23 police officers in a schoolyard safely removed from pedestrians and traffic.
“The primary danger facing the police at this time was from themselves, if they continued to shoot at each other in the circular firing squad they had inadvertently formed. After the ceasefire, Officer Brelo unleashed an unlawful, second barrage of shots.”
Brelo’s defense team decided to put his fate in the hands of a judge, not a jury. The judge will have to decide whether the final 15 shots he fired during a 137-shot barrage by officers was justified. His defense team has argued that all 49 shots Brelo fired that night were justified and that the threat was not over until Brelo reached the car and removed the keys.
Russell and Williams each were struck by more than 20 rounds, with nearly 100 rounds striking the Malibu.
Brelo could receive a maximum sentence of 25 years if convicted.