How Will Cleveland Respond to the Michael Brelo Verdict?
The cop just dodged prison time after jumping on the hood of a car and firing at least 15 rounds through the windshield on two unarmed, mentally-ill black people in 2012.
Photo via Flickr user Erik Drost
Cleveland's Justice Center is a concrete block just south of the Lake Erie shoreline done in a shade of beige that always looks in need of a good pressure washing. Narrow windows run the building's latitude and give it the slightly menacing look of partially-open venetian blinds, out of which some unseen force might be peering.
Inside, Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, who had been standing trial for voluntary manslaughter in the deaths of two unarmed black suspects, was found not guilty Saturday of all charges lodged against him. In an hour-long explanation of the ruling, Judge John O'Donnell said that prosecutors had not proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" that Brelo "knowingly caused the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams" by jumping on the hood of their car and firing at least 15 rounds through the windshield in November 2012. Five Cleveland Police Supervisors have also been charged with dereliction of duty, though their trial dates have not yet been set.
The judge decided that the prosecution failed to show that Brelo—who with a dozen other officers unleashed a total of 137 rounds—had fired the decisive shots, and further determined that from Brelo's perspective that night, the shots were justifiable.
The verdict hits the city six months after the shooting of Tamir Rice . The initial investigation into the 12-year-old's death is still underway, a fact that has drawn ire from local and national civil rights advocates. A protest in Rice's name is scheduled for Saturday afternoon, as is a counter protest, the latest spark in a decades-long struggle over local policing practices.
The story of the Brelo trial, which has been followed closely by Clevelanders, actually begins where it ended Saturday, at a spot just across from the court complex on Lakeside Avenue that's known for drug deals. On the night of November 29, 2012, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams visited that spot in a 1979 Chevy Malibu. Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, knew each other from a homeless shelter on Superior Avenue where they both got free meals. She was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and he suffered from bipolar disorder. Both had long struggled with addiction, and they were out that night to score, which they did.
Eventually, after their bodies had been riddled with bullets and removed from the car, police would find a crack pipe, and toxicology reports would go on to indicate that each had cocaine and other drugs in their systems.
Around 10:30 PM, a plainclothes cop ran the car's plates, and when nothing showed up, attempted to pull it over for a turn signal violation. Russell, who'd had run-ins with the police before, decided to make a break for it. As he did, there was a noise officers thought sounded like a gunshot. An expert at trial later concluded that the car had backfired. Russell sped through Public Square, over the Detroit Superior Bridge, which spans the Cuyahoga River, and headed into Cleveland's West Side.
Over the course of the next 23 minutes, Russell would take police on a high-speed tour of the city, dipping slightly south towards Steelyard Commons before getting on I-90 and heading east. Sixty-two police cars eventually joined in the chase, which reached speeds of 100 mph. Russell finally came to a stop in the city of East Cleveland, cornered by police near a middle school. Cops later said that the car was trying to run them over and someone thought they saw a gun. Officers fired and the shooting continued until 13 of them had discharged the 137 bullets.
Officer Michael Brelo emptied 49 bullets from his service weapon into the car; the final rounds, a fellow officer later testified, came when Brelo jumped on the hood of the Malibu and fired directly downwards onto Russell and Williams. A gun was never found on either of them.
"This assumption of violence is at the core of what people are pissed off about."
In the wake of protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, the City of Cleveland began issuing statements about public safety and the verdict's announcement last week. Children could stay home from school after the verdict, they said, and neighborhood listservs sent out the locations of designated "safe houses" where residents could shelter in the event of rioting. Local news reported that city officials were sitting down with coaches, motorcycle club leaders, pastors, and former gang members to talk about violence prevention.
In late April, as the trial wrapped up, local news outlets reported that the police department had issued orders for officers to come to work prepared with protective gear, including helmets and shields.
Implicit in the city's preparations for the Brelo verdict is a fear that the cumulative effects of a year of bad news about the police use of excessive force—the Department of Justice issued a damning report on Cleveland in late 2014, prompted in part by the deaths of Russell Williams—could bubble over. Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, issued a statement following the Brelo verdict that she and her team would "now review the testimony and evidence presented in the state trial."
Erika Anthony, senior director of advocacy and policy for Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, a community development organization, and Evelyn Burnett, the group's Vice President of Economic Opportunity, attended outreach meetings conducted by officials in recent days. They hope the city's abundance-of-caution response doesn't hinder any lawful protests in the wake of the verdict's announcement.
"One of the questions that I've been pressing in meetings is the difference between a protest and a riot," Anthony said. "You can't deny citizens the right to meet or galvanize in a group if they're not doing something violent. You can't stop that, and I think the messages have been mixed as far as what the city wants people to do or not do."
Burnett says she doesn't think that the city is wrong to be prepared, but added that the investment of attention in the potential for rioting has pushed off discussions about the city's more systemic issues. Early last week, Cleveland City Councilman Kevin Conwell of the majority-black Glenville neighborhood was misquoted in a NPR story, saying that he would "riot the neighborhood for three days after the verdict if he's acquitted. I have to riot. I have to show leadership. Conwell actually said "ride" and NPR later corrected its account.
"This assumption of violence is at the core of what people are pissed off about," Burnett said. "This implicit bias that then leads to this implicit fear of us, all the time. That's what black folks are saying—why do you continue to be so afraid of me to the point that it gives you immunity if you take my life?"
Foremost in the minds of many Cleveland activists are not riots, but rather the terms of an agreement between the feds and the city to address its policing problems.
The DOJ's December 2014 report found that "CDP officers too frequently resort to a type of force that is unreasonable in light of the resistance or threat encountered." The consent decree, as it is known, is essentially a settlement in which the city agrees to take steps toward halting its violations. An independent monitor, as yet unnamed, will be appointed to oversee the process, a nod to the fact that recommendations from a similar 2004 DOJ report about the city's policing practices, "were either not fully implemented or, if implemented, were not maintained over time."
David Malik, a civil rights attorney who represented the family of Malissa Williams in its successful $3 million lawsuit against the city, said he hopes to see more rigorous training for officers and dispatchers, along with better communications equipment. Halfway through the chase that ended in the deaths of Russell and Williams, some officers can be heard on tape telling dispatchers, "He does not have a gun in his hand" and, "There's a red pop can in his hand, be advised." The information seems to have been lost in the chaos of the pursuit.
Will Cooper, a former Cleveland Police Sergeant who was with the department from 1981 until his retirement in 2011, said in an interview that the city uses what he calls an "antiquated" dispatch system. "Cars can't speak to each other, lots of time the dispatchers can't speak to the cars," he told me.
The Justice Department noticed these problems. It found that not all cars have computers that let them communicate properly with dispatchers, and, "of those that do, the computers do not all reliably work." Police sometimes can't access information about the nature of calls they get—in the Tamir Rice shooting, the officers who arrived at the scene didn't receive the initial 911 caller's caveat that the gun the 12-year-old was carrying was "probably fake," and that Rice was "probably a juvenile."
Officers sometimes rely on personal cell phones to receive and collect information, using them to take photographs and send text messages, potential evidence in criminal cases. The DOJ's report noted that this was legally hazy territory and that "CDP has no protocol in place for how such evidence will be handled, preserved, or disclosed to prosecutors and defense attorneys."
A Cleveland police spokesperson said in an email that an update the to current dispatch system, which dates to 2009, is "in the works" and "could possibly occur this year."
Malik, the civil rights attorney, also pointed to the importance of greater transparency and said that the department currently operates in a climate of "wholesale lack of accountability."
"There is a paucity of analytical data collected on the performance of officers in Cleveland," he said. "There needs to be a database that tracks officer complaints and tracks officer commendations."
He added that Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Rice, had received poor marks on his handgun abilities at his previous post with a suburban department—his skills were "dismal," according to an evaluation, and he became "distracted" and "weepy" during the course of training. He was still hired by the Cleveland Police.
Another excessive force incident by Cleveland Police in 2011 only came to light after an anonymous source leaked video from a police helicopter showing the beating of 41-year-old Edward Henderson after he led police on a chase. Henderson, who sustained a detached retina and broken eye socket, was awarded $600,000 in damages from the city. He told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that cops laughed as they beat him, and said they would blame his injuries on a car crash. Their incident report included no notes that force had been used.
Cooper, the former Cleveland cop, says the nature of the police department changed drastically during his tenure, and that most officers on the force when he started out had been shaped by the tumultuous events of the late 1960s and 1970s.
"They were very careful about starting something that couldn't be controlled," he said. "Within their experience, they got shot at, the snipers tried to take them out. Hough and Glenville"—neighborhoods that saw large-scale rioting, including sniper fire, in 1966 and 1968—"had an extreme effect on these guys."
Cooper said there was a shift in tenor during the 1990s and 2000s.
"Some of the Iraq War-era veterans who had a tremendous, terrible experience over there, they come over here and your department starts to become more militarized. There's a detachment, there's a retreat from the community policing concept of things."
Before she died, Malissa Williams had at least 46 run-ins with the criminal justice system.
In the days leading up to the verdict, many on the ground in Cleveland expected the Brelo announcement to pass peacefully, and not just because of the city's preemptive actions. "I think the community is too passive to have a Ferguson or a Baltimore," Erika Anthony said. She and Burnett cite disillusionment with city politics in particular—a movement has been afoot for the past several months to recall three-term Mayor Frank Jackson.
Efforts have sprung up aiming to clue Cleveland citizens into the implementation of federally-mandated police reforms. Burnett and Anthony are part of a collective looking to develop a digital platform that will provide information on the DOJ consent agreement and track the progress of any reform efforts. "Our tax dollars will pay for this consent agreement one way or another," Burnett said. "One major outcome is people taking back ownership of their government and their elected officials."
It remains a fact of life for many Cleveland residents—a city where 35 percent of the population lives below the poverty line—that police are the both a threat and the most common route to crucial public services like mental health counseling. Before she died, Malissa Williams had at least 46 run-ins with the criminal justice system. She had been arrested on prostitution charges—the Plain Dealer reported that in a police sting, she had offered to perform sex acts in a car for $20. But most of the calls to police were reporting disturbances related to her schizophrenia, including those from distraught relatives. Williams was homeless at the end of her life, but not without family.
Martha Mae Williams, her mother, talked to The Daily Beast shortly after the shooting in 2012. "I'm not going to let them close her casket," she said. "They're going to have to look at what the police did to my child."
Clare Malone is a freelance writer and an editorial staffer at the New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter.