'This Is Straight Murder': A Troubling Acquittal in Cleveland

No police officers will serve time for the November 2012 shooting death of two unarmed black civilians.

Protesters link arms and hands as they walk near where the county prosecutor lives in Cleveland on Saturday, May 23, 2015.  (Tony Dejak/AP)

On November 29, 2012, police officers and witnesses heard what appeared to be gunshots coming from a car driving near a police station in Cleveland. A high-speed car chase ensued, drawing in over 100 officers on duty, before the police managed to corner the car. Thirteen police officers then fired 137 rounds of ammunition at the vehicle, whose occupants Cleveland police suspected were armed. After the other officers stopped firing, 31-year-old Michael Brelo climbed on top of the hood of the suspect’s car and fired 15 more rounds at close range. When the shooting stopped, the car’s occupants, 43-year-old Timothy Russell and 30-year-old Malissa Williams, were dead. Both were unarmed. The “gunshot” witnesses heard turned out to be a backfiring car.

Brelo, who is white, was charged with two counts of voluntary manslaughter. On Saturday, an Ohio court acquitted him, claiming that the officer’s actions were “reasonable despite knowing now that there was no gun in the car and he was mistaken about the gunshots.” Barring the subsequent prosecution of other police officers involved in the shooting, no officers will serve time for the deaths of Williams and Russell.

Relatives and supporters of the victims reacted to the verdict with outrage. “The police should have went to jail for life for this,” said Alfredo Williams, Malissa’s brother. “This is straight murder.” U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge, whose 11th Congressional district includes the part of Cleveland, added that “the verdict is another chilling reminder of the broken relationship between the Cleveland Police Department and the community it serves.”

Cleveland’s Troubled Police Force

Tensions between African-Americans and police officers charged with serving and protecting them have intensified throughout the United States in recent years, as the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner stirred nationwide outrage. But the problem has been particularly acute in Cleveland. In a report published last December, the Department of Justice found numerous instances of abuse, misconduct, and excessive force. A police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice after the boy pulled out an airsoft gun while playing in the park. A 300 pound police officer who sat on and repeatedly punched a 13-year-old boy in his custody. An officer tasered another boy, strapped to a gurney after suffering a seizure on a Cleveland sidewalk, for making verbal threats.

According to the DOJ, these incidents occurred within a dysfunctional police culture where superiors in the department failed to rein in abusive behavior, review excessive use of force, or investigate allegations of misconduct. Attempts to discipline the officers responsible for the November 2012 shooting of Williams and Russell have caused additional problems. Last fall, nine of the 13 officers involved in the case filed a lawsuit alleging reverse racial discrimination after being punished with three days of administrative leave and 45 days of restricted duty.

A Nationwide Problem

But the problems resonate far beyond Cleveland. Police departments across the country have struggled to achieve racial diversity, leading to jurisdictions where a largely white police force serves a largely black community. A ProPublica study cited by Vox found that between 2010 and 2012, police officers were 21 times more likely to kill a black teenager than a white teenager. Records have shown that police officers who kill unarmed civilians are rarely convicted, and are seldom required to compensate survivors of their victims in civil lawsuits. Six months after Tamir Rice’s death, the police officer responsible hasn’t even been questioned.

In a press conference after the verdict, Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson appealed for calm.

“This is a moment that will define us as a city,” he said.

His words apply far beyond Cleveland’s borders.