Protests follow acquittal of Cleveland police officer

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(CNN) — Relatives of two unarmed people shot to death by Cleveland police in 2012 had harsh words Saturday after Officer Michael Brelo was found not guilty of all charges.

“We were expecting him to be convicted of at least one of the charges,” said Jackie Russell, sister-in-law of Timothy Russell, said on CNN. “We feel as though basically the judge gave him a pat on the back and said good job for shooting those people.”

“If this case was tried in any other city that police (officer) would be in jail,” said Alfredo Williams, brother of Malissa Williams. “You know it and I know it.”

Protesters took to the street immediately after Judge John P. O’Donnell acquitted Brelo on charges of voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault.

The demonstrators assembled outside the judicial center in Cleveland for two hours following the announcement of the verdict.

Some chanted “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter,” words heard in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York, where sometimes-violent demonstrations occurred after African-Americans died at the hands of white police officers.

Law enforcement officers formed a line and kept them from entering the judicial center. After about two hours, the protesters marched through parts of the city. Some formed a line on the Cleveland Memorial Shoreway, a freeway through town, and blocked traffic briefly.

One person was arrested when an object thrown through a restaurant window injured a patron inside, police said on the department’s Twitter account. The overall number of protesters appeared to be small, perhaps because of the Memorial Day weekend.

Brelo, 31, was accused of firing the bullets that killed Russell, 43, and Williams, 30, on November 29, 2012, after a 22-mile police chase ended in a middle school parking lot. Authorities said Brelo stood on the hood of the car Russell was driving and fired 15 shots through the windshield.

Though about a dozen officers fired a total of 137 rounds at the car, no other officers were charged with manslaughter.

Michelle Russell, Timothy Russell’s sister, said nobody will know why her brother didn’t stop when police pursued.

“I know that those officers were upset,” she said. “Adrenaline was flowing. By the time they cut off Tim and Malissa in that parking lot, they let them have it.”

In explaining his verdict, Judge O’Donnell said it was reasonable for Brelo to think Russell and Williams still posed a threat to officers. The chase started after the car driven by Russell backfired — a noise officers mistakenly thought was caused by gunshots. The judge also said he couldn’t be sure Brelo fired the fatal rounds.

Social media buzzed with reaction, mostly against the verdict.

@dontahenson tweeted, “If 4 civilians shoot 137 rounds and kill 2 people, everyone gets charged with murder. Cops, no so much. #BreloVerdict”

@MichaelEDyson tweeted, “So because we can’t determine that this cop killed the victims in a hail of bullets, then none of them is therefore guilty? #BreloVerdict.”

Tom Fuentes, a former FBI assistant director, told CNN that he thinks people are upset because of the enormity of the police response.

“A lot of the outrage of this case is that over 100 shots, that many police officers, that many police officers involved in the pursuit was clearly excessive,” he said. ” And i think any reasonable police officer would agree that in totality it was excessive. But the totality wasn’t on trial. It was one cop firing the shots he fired at that car with the belief that possibly there was still a situation where his life might be in jeopardy.”

City and state officials called for calm.

“We’re going to do everything humanly possible to keep the city safe,” Police Chief Calvin Williams said at a press conference. “The city will not tolerate any violence or destruction.”

“It is my expectation that protests remain peaceful and do not undermine the progress this community has made in ensuring that all citizens receive the respect they expect and deserve,” Mayor Frank G. Jackson said in a statement. “Actions that cross the line — by citizens or police officers — cannot and will not be tolerated. We are all one Cleveland and we want the same thing: peace, dialogue and positive change.”

Gov. John R. Kasich said, “The court has spoken and we must respect its decision. Everyone must have the right for their response to be heard — including when they are angry and hurt — and voicing that frustration in a peaceful way helps us all rise above those forces that would hold us back and tear us down.”

Brelo’s lawyer, Patrick D’Angelo, said authorities went too far in charging his client at all.

“The prosecution in this case spared no expense and was, in fact, ruthless,” he said. “We fought tooth and nail, as you saw in the courtroom. It was classically a case of David vs. Goliath.”

Cleveland has avoided violent protests so far, despite several incidents that raised concerns about excessive use of force by police. The killings of Russell and Williams was one of the cases highlighted in a 2014 Department of Justice report that found that Cleveland police had a pattern of using excessive force.

Last November, a police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice, 12, who was holding an air pistol near a gazebo in a public park. Video of the incident shows a police officer firing at the boy two seconds after exiting his patrol car.

Sheriff Clifford Pinkney recently said the investigation of the case is almost finished. No charges have been filed against the officer.

Darren Toms, the Cuyahoga County Courthouse spokesman, said authorities tried to release the Brelo verdict at a time that would cause the least disruption. He sent this statement:

“The decision to announce the verdict in this high-profile case on a holiday weekend was not made lightly. It was done so following consultation between the Court administration, other court officials, and the local law enforcement community.

“The prime consideration was to not delay the reading of the verdict any longer than necessary. While the wait was difficult for many, it was especially hard on the parties involved in the case and their families. Once Judge O’Donnell reached his verdict and finished writing his opinion, he and the Court wanted to let the parties know the decision as quickly as possible.

“It was agreed that by announcing it on a Saturday morning, the potential for downtown traffic issues and the resulting impact on the community could also be lessened.”

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