The streets of Cleveland, Ohio largely remained calm Sunday morning after police in riot gear made numerous arrests overnight of protesters angered by a patrolman's acquittal in the deaths of two unarmed black suspects in a barrage of police gunfire.
Officer Michael Brelo, 31, faces administrative charges while remaining suspended without pay after he was found not guilty Saturday on two counts of voluntary manslaughter, but he no longer faces the prospect of prison. The anxious city now awaits a decision on criminal charges against a white officer in the fatal shooting of a black 12-year-old boy carrying a pellet gun.
Protesters took to Cleveland streets on Saturday night as police patrolled in riot gear. In total, 71 people were arrested, including several who turned their anger toward bystanders in downtown Cleveland, Police Chief Calvin Williams said. Someone picked up a restaurant sign and hit a patron in the head, and other protesters used pepper spray on passers-by and restaurant patrons sitting at outdoor cafes.
Brelo and 12 other officers fired 137 shots at a car with Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, inside it on Nov. 29, 2012. The shooting occurred at the end of a 22-mile chase involving more than 100 Cleveland police officers and 60 cruisers after Russell's Chevy Malibu backfired while speeding past police headquarters. During the chase, an officer reported that he thought he'd seen Williams with a gun. At the end, police mistook police gunfire for shots from Russell's car.
Brelo fired 49 of those shots that night, but it was the final 15 fired into the windshield while he stood on the hood of Russell's car that led to his indictment and a four-week trial. He faced up to 22 years in prison if convicted on both counts.
The shooting helped prompt an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice that concluded Cleveland police had engaged in a pattern and practice of excessive use of force and violations of people's civil rights.
Brelo’s trial, which began on April 6, was held amid increased focus on the killings of unarmed black men by white police officers in various states across the U.S. The two people who were killed, Williams and Russell, were black and Brelo, a former Marine, is white.
The Cleveland protest formed outside the city’s Justice Center on Saturday morning while Judge John P. O'Donnell read from his 35-page verdict.
At noon, around 200 protesters gathered near the home of Tim McGinty, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor who lost the case against Brelo.
Both groups later merged at a recreation center where a rookie patrol officer killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice last November. The protest turned boisterous and some instances of related violence were reported in the city. However, many of the arrested were held on account of unlawful assembly and obstruction of justice, not violence.
An investigation into the Rice shooting is nearly complete and will be given to the prosecutor's office to decide whether to pursue criminal charges.
Alicia Kirkman, 47, of Cleveland, said she joined the protest in honor of her son, killed in a police shooting eight years ago.
"I'm just so mad we never get justice from any of the police killings," said Kirkman, who said she settled with the city after her son's death but no charges were filed.
Judge O'Donnell on Saturday said in his ruling that he wouldn't "sacrifice" Brelo to the wave of anti-police sentiment that has swept across the nation in the wake of other police killings.
The judge's decision to acquit Brelo focused on which shots killed Russell and Williams, two homeless drug addicts with a long history of mental illness. Four of the 23 gunshot wounds to Russell and seven of Williams' 24 wounds were believed to have been fatal. O'Donnell said that while testimony showed Brelo fired some of the fatal shots, other officers fired kill shots as well.
A grand jury charged five police supervisors with misdemeanor dereliction of duty for failing to control the chase. All five have pleaded not guilty and no trial date has been set.
Prosecutors had argued that when Brelo stood on the hood of the vehicle that he meant to kill Russell and Williams instead of containing a threat to his and other officers' lives.
O'Donnell ruled that even the last 15 shots were justified based on Brelo's belief that someone inside the car had fired at police at the beginning, middle and end of the chase.
"Officer Brelo risked his life on that night," Brelo's lead attorney, Patrick D'Angelo, said after the verdict.
McGinty said he respected O'Donnell's decision, and added that the case would prevent police violence.
In addition to the Tamir Rice case, the county prosecutor's office is looking into the death of a black woman who died in police custody while lying face down on the ground in handcuffs. The family of Tanisha Anderson, 37, has sued the city of Cleveland and the two police officers that subdued her. They say she panicked Nov. 12 when officers put her in the back of a patrol car after they'd responded to a call about Anderson having a mental health crisis.
Russell's sister, Michelle, said Brelo would ultimately face justice, despite the judge's decision. The city of Cleveland has paid the families of Russell and Williams a total of $3 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit.
"He's not going to dodge this just because he was acquitted," Michelle Russell said. "God will have the final say."