Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Was police officer Michael Brelo really innocent?

During the evening of November 29, 2012, an unidentified Cleveland police officer reported a shot fired from a car outside Cuyahoga County Justice Center in downtown Cleveland. A second officer also reported shots, sparking a high-speed chase that began near police headquarters.

Unfortunately for everyone involved in the chase and the two blacks inside the car, there wasn’t any gun shots fired. Their car had backfired.  However, the police still believed that the persons in the car had fired a gun so the police were hell bent on capturing whom they believed were dangerous fleeing criminals.
 Now I will say right from the get go, the driver of the car then made a very stupid and fatal mistake. He sped away from the scene at a high rate of speed.  This move convinced the police that the people in the car were very dangerous. Had the driver and his passenger placed their hands out of the windows of the car when the police were approaching them with guns drawn, they would be alive today. 

During the police chase, the fleeing driver had driven from downtown Cleveland on Interstate 90 east through Bratenahl at speeds of up to 100 mph and rammed a police car before he exited the freeway and headed into East Cleveland.

Of the 276 officers on duty on the evening of November 29, 104 were involved in some way or other in the chase. The police had 62 cars involved in the chase, which began in downtown Cleveland and ended in the parking lot of a middle school in East Cleveland. Police from Cleveland, East Cleveland, Bratenahl, the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office, the Ohio State Highway Patrol and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority were involved in the 25-minute chase.

It turns out that thirteen cops fired 137 rounds at the fleeing car. Further, some bullets hit police cars. When the car was stopped in the parking lot of Heritage Middle School in Cleveland, Officer Michael Brelo jumped onto the hood of the car and fired 15 bullets through the windshield at the two persons in the car.

It was later determined that the driver, Timothy Russell was shot 23 times and his passenger, Malissa Williams was shot 24 times. The police searched the car and discovered that there were no guns or empty shell casings found in the car. As I said earlier, if the driver hadn`t tried to flee, both of them would be alive today.   

There were two basic questions that had to be answered. The first one is; “Why were so many shots fired on the busy streets and a highway during the chase?”  It was pure luck that no one else was hurt or killed during the firing of the guns. The second question is, “Why did Officer Brelo fire fifteen shots at the two in the car after the chase had ended. A US Supreme Court ruling around the time of the shooting had ruled that police can't fire on suspects after a public safety threat has ended. 


The question to be answered is whether or not Officer Belo believed that the public safety threat had already ended or if it was ongoing. One sure way to make that determination is if shots from the car were continuing. then the threat is ongoing however if not, then there is no further public safety threat. As it turned out, when Officer Brelo jumped onto the hood of the car, the danger didn`t exist and never did because there was no gun in the car. He stupidly and needlessly fired his gun at two unarmed persons in the car.  East Cleveland Police detective Scott Gardner told WEWS that preliminary investigation revealed that there was no evidence that the suspects had exchanged fire with police.

Cleveland officials suspended police officers for their roles in that car chase that ended in the shooting deaths of an unarmed man and woman. The officer`s offenses include engaging in a chase without permission and providing false information on police reports. Later in June 2013, police the said that one supervisor was fired, two were demoted and nine were suspended for more than 10 days for their roles in the improper chase.

The fired officer, Sgt. Michael Donegan, briefly participated in the chase but he pulled away from the chase, parked his patrol vehicle and in doing so, he failed to supervise his officers. Safety Director Martin Flask, who oversees police and fire said, “I made a determination that his conduct was so egregious that it merited termination.”

In a wide-ranging review by state agents, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in February 2013 that the chase resulted from leadership failures. “Command failed, communications failed, the system failed.”

While chases have gone on for decades, mounting concerns about public safety, police liability and excessive force claims are fueling policy changes that have come to states like Florida, Kansas and California. This year, the Cleveland police department adopted a restrictive police chase policy: officers can only chase those suspected of a violent felony or driving while intoxicated. The move is part of growing national trend among various police departments to limit chases. 

No one is going to argue that fleeing from the police is not wrong. However, it's the police's responsibility to make sure that both their officers as well as the public remain safe while they are doing their job.

Every chase comes with the risk of hurting innocent bystanders and destroying property in accidents. While concern about chases have gone on for decades, in the last few years, more and more departments have been reacting to such incidents by changing the rules officers are to follow.

About 35%-40% of all police chases end in crashes. Officers also become filled with adrenaline and can possibly find themselves using excessive force once they catch their suspects. They are trained to de-escalate the situation. They can only apply physical force that's proportional to the amount of threat. But, human nature and adrenaline make that more difficult.     

A civil claim, which also included the Russell family, had been filed against the officers involved in the shooting and the city of Cleveland for "gratuitous, excessive, and objectively unreasonable force" that caused an uncontrolled, deadly chase.                                                                                   

After the deaths of Russell and Williams, several activists in Cleveland claimed the shootings were part of a larger problem of officers racially profiling blacks in the city. The Cleveland authorities deny the claims.

Ms. Williams was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. She was also homeless and often asked family members for cash. But her loved ones insist Williams wasn't violent. Police had arrested Williams multiple times for felony drug possession as well as for kidnapping, attempted abduction and rape. Toxicology reports found that both Russell and Williams had consumed cocaine--likely within six hours of the chase and shooting. Police also found a crack pipe and two lighters in the car she was a passenger in. I don`t know if the police who were chasing that car were aware of her criminal record.

The County medical examiner stated that cocaine was in the blood of 43-year-old driver Timothy Russell. He also tested positive for amphetamines. This may explain his intent to flee the police. He also had previous criminal convictions. I don’t know if the police chasing him knew about his previous convictions.

Officer Michael Brelo had been charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter. He chose to have a trial by judge alone. In his decision, the trial judge found Brelo not guilty on both charges stemming from the incident, ruling that the shooting was justified and that it was impossible to determine if the fatal shots were fired by Brelo or one of the other officers during the chase. For those reasons, he dismissed the charges against Brelo.  Now think about those decisions for a moment.

When the car had stopped moving in the school parking lot, the chase was over. There were no students, teachers or anyone else in the immediate area of the car other that armed police officers. No shots were being fired from the stopped car. The danger was over. There was no justifiable reason for Brelo to jump on the hood and kill the two persons in the car.  A negotiator could be called to talk the two into leaving the car with their hands up if that was possible. If not possible, the officers could carefully approach the car and if there was no apparent threat, removed the two from the car.

Further, it is conceivable that the passenger was already dead by the time Brelo jumped onto the hood of the car. However, it doesn’t make any sense at all that the driver was dead and I will tell you why. If he was dead, then how did the car managed to drive into the parking lot of the school by itself?  

Timothy Russell was shot 23 times and his passenger, Malissa Williams was shot 24 times. Officer Brelo fired 15 bullets through the windshield at the two persons in the car.

Are we to believe that none of Brelo’s bullets entered the bodies of those two persons sitting in the front seats of the car?  The distance between Brelo and the two in the car couldn’t have been more than a few feet.

Suppose for argument’s sake that you are seen by a reliable witness shooting someone at close range with a high powered gun and the bullets go through the person’s body and are never found. And suppose other people were also shooting at the victim. Would this mean that you can’t be convicted of shooting the person dead because your bullets can’t be found? Of course not.

Even if the bullets found in the body of the driver were so mangled, (because they hit the glass windows first) a determination couldn’t be made as to which bullets were the fatal bullets, it doesn’t alter the fact that Brelo purposely and with a determination to kill both the persons in the car, fire his gun at them at close range directly at them. At best, it was voluntary manslaughter. It could also be classed as attempted murder.

The trial judge used the wrong standard on causation in announcing its verdict. Under established Ohio law it says that police officers who recklessly expose themselves to danger, violate their training and kill civilians means that such officers have violated the Fourth Amendment  which states that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated. I am not sure how that Amendment will apply in this particular case since obtaining a warrant under the circumstances of this case wasn’t necessary.  

The US Federal Justice Department can step in and retry this case under federal law. Experienced federal prosecutors can determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within its jurisdiction.

There are several factual and legal hurdles that federal prosecutors would have to overcome. They'd have to show that not only was the attack unjustified, but that Officer Brelo attacked the two victims because of their race. I think that the last hurdle is one that the Feds won’t be able leap over. Federal prosecutors would likely find that that such an allegation is hard to prove.  However, I think that they will have far more luck in establishing that the shootings by Brelo were unjustified. That is because Brelo would have a hard time proving that he acted in self defence for himself or shooting the victims while protecting the lives of his fellow officers.

The prosecutors also have the option of appealing the decision of the trial judge.

In May 2015, the Department of Justice and the city of Cleveland reached a sweeping agreement that holds the promise to fundamentally change policing in Cleveland for the betterment of all its citizens.

The 105-page agreement comes just two days after a judge found Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo not guilty of manslaughter for his role in the deaths of two people at the end of a highly controversial police chase in 2012.

In essence, the agreement calls for more training and accountability for officers, and it involves the community in a much deeper way as to how the city’s police division functions. 

Training officers will train officers how to de-escalate situations, and the creation of a Force Review Board is to be created. Officers will not be allowed to use head strikes with hard objects unless in a situation where lethal force would be justified.

Accountability and Internal Affairs will now be overseen by a civilian. who will be the Police Inspector General.

There will be the creation of a Mental Health Response Advisory Committee and officers who are highly trained will be called to respond to mental health issues.

The agreement will be overseen by an independent monitor who will be a federal judge.

I believe that a civil suit is being lodged against the City of Cleveland and Officer Brelo.

As to Officer Brelo’s future in the Cleveland P:olice Department, I don’t knows what his future is.

When I get more pertinent information in this interesting case, I will UPDATE this article.    

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