Cuyahoga County

Statement of County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty on today’s verdict in the Michael Brelo trial

5/23/2015

Following today’s verdict in the manslaughter trial of Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty released the following statement:

Although profoundly disappointed with today’s verdict, I respect the legal process we have followed here and we accept the Judge’s decision. I urge everyone else, especially those who shared our hope for a different outcome, to do so as well. The rule of law, so fundamental to our American society, demands nothing less.

Second, I want to thank the prosecutors and staff in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office who formed a team and worked with enthusiasm and dedication to achieve justice:

Richard Bell, Chief of Special Investigations
James Gutierrez, Assistant Prosecutor, Major Trial Unit
Sherrie Royster, Assistant Prosecutor, Major Trial Unit
Erica Barnhill, Assistant Prosecutor
Adam Chaloupka, Assistant Prosecutor
Allan Regas, Appellate Unit Supervisor
Sarah Denney, Assistant Prosecutor
James Gallagher, Assistant Prosecutor
Collin Showe, Law Clerk
Poula Hanna, Law Clerk
Saleh Awadallah, Major Trial Unit Supervisor
Lindsay Raskin, Assistant Prosecutor
Duane Deskins, First Assistant Prosecutor and Juvenile Division Chief
Joseph Frolik, Director of Communications and Public Policy
Reanna Karousis, Communications and Development Officer
Andy Nichol, Criminal Division Chief
Jane Platten, Chief of Staff
Linda Quinn, Paralegal
John Suraya, BCI Special Agent

I was extremely proud of their efforts and of the case we presented.

A series if tragic errors on November 29, 2012, and the subsequent trial of Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo forced all of us, the City, the community and the police to confront some tough issues that many would have preferred to postpone.

The trial forced us to examine how and why so many errors and flawed assumptions could have led to the deaths of two unarmed people – a totally innocent, trapped and essentially kidnapped mentally ill passenger and a panicked and disturbed petty criminal – after a chase of more than 20 minutes and 20 miles that involved more than 100 officers and was led by a group of supervisors who ignored their training and Division of Police rules.
To highlight the danger that the out-of-control police also posed to the innocent public and to one another, one only need examine the heavy “friendly fire” they inflicted on their own police cars. Only by the grace of God did we not have a number of police deaths.

If we all listen to the powerful and indisputable lessons that the Heritage Middle School shootout has taught us, there will never have to be another Brelo trial. If we correct the failures that made this tragedy possible, the City and its citizens do not have to suffer through another fiasco.

Those lessons include:

  1. I believe the police department has developed a new appreciation of the necessity of real training for chases, when and if they are to permitted.
  2. Far more training in understanding the proper use of deadly force and in methods of de-escalation before the last resort of killing a fellow citizen are obviously needed.
  3. Discipline within a police department is absolutely necessary to maintain control and professionalism. If the rules are routinely disregarded, penalties must be imposed or history will repeat itself. In this case, Cleveland has disciplined, suspended or fired dozens of officers, and this will discourage future disregard for the rules. Civilian review and oversight from outside the department’s insular culture would benefit the city and the department’s performance.
  4. This case also points out that retraining is needed for returning combat veterans who serve in police departments. Soldiers are trained to kill the enemy. In high stress situations, a veteran can easily revert to what he has been taught by the military unless properly retrained as a civilian officer. In civilian crises, de-escalation and patience are to the police’s advantage, and minimal level of force necessary to calm the situation is preferred.
  5. Better equipment and coordination such as inexpensive road spikes or the productive use of a helicopter could help when chases are necessary. But one piece of equipment that is about to change our world in Cleveland and create absolute accountability is the video camera. Body and dashboard cameras will become the unblinking, credible eyewitness to all that happens when police and citizens interact. Complaints of police misconduct will fall dramatically and this recorded evidence will aid in the prosecution of criminals.
  6. The mentally ill account for a disproportionate number of problematic use of force and use of deadly force encounters. Many people who once would have been in an institutionalized setting now have no place to go. They cannot be controlled or treated at home, and so they end up in homeless shelters, under bridges, or on the streets -- unmedicated, paranoid, schizophrenic and dangerous. Add the drugs and alcohol many use to self-medicate, and they become even more difficult to control. The police now are the ones forced to deal with them daily. Exhaustive, specialized training protocols and additional police officers are needed. Recent cases and lawsuits have shown us all the need to improve our performance.
  7. In the aftermath of this incident, Mayor Jackson wisely invited the Department of Justice back to Cleveland to evaluate the Division of Police. Those discussions continue, but the end result should be a better-trained police force that looks to de-escalate dangerous situations, builds bridges to the community and embraces a new culture of accountability.
  8. Cleveland has agreed to have an independent police agency handle future use of deadly force investigations, and this office encourages all cities in the county to do likewise. The Cuyahoga County Sheriff Cliff Pinkney has agreed to assume this important responsibility for Cleveland, and a task force has been formed to handle these use of deadly force investigations. The City of Cleveland agreed to use the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation to independently investigate the Heritage Middle School case. BCI did a tremendous job at great time and expense, and Attorney General Mike DeWine’s commitment to justice is greatly appreciated. He has stepped in in other cases as well, and BCI has done a very professional job.
  9. Better laws can discourage felony, high-speed, failure-to-comply chases by imposing higher and mandatory penalties. We also need laws that mandate safer policies and more accountability from police departments in high-speed chases. These laws will reduce the dangers to innocent motorists and to other police officers.
  10. Strong leadership and sound decision-making within the police department by those sergeants and lieutenants who are actually in the field and have responsibility to call off unduly dangerous pursuits is absolutely essential. These supervisors must carefully weigh the risk to the public versus the real danger posed by a fleeing suspect. Can police identity the offender via license plates or other means? Is it a traffic ticket or a murder he is fleeing? Is it day or night? Light or heavy traffic? And most important, is this offense worth a real risk of killing innocent civilians or other police? Each individual police officer can call off his or her own chase, and in this case many officers did. It should be noted that police leaders in the First, Fourth and Fifth Districts refused to allow their zone cars to join the chase on November 29.
Going forward, the policy of this office will continue to be:

All use of deadly force cases by police in Cuyahoga County will be reviewed and decided by the Grand Jury. After a complete and thorough investigation, the results will be presented to the Grand Jury and any additional evidence that Grand Jurors desire will be obtained and presented to them. If they believe that the civilian death at the hands of the police was not a justifiable use of deadly force under Ohio law and the guidelines created by the Supreme Court of the United States, then the Grand Jury will bring charges against those involved.

Thus, ultimately in all cases, the decision will go back to the people. It is also the policy of this office to make public the independent investigations of the police actions. We did it in this case and we will continue to do so in the future.
Our pursuit of justice for Timothy Russell and Melissa Williams is not over. Five Cleveland Police Supervisors have been charged with dereliction of duty for failing to control the reckless and potentially deadly police chase. We look forward to presenting another vigorous prosecution on behalf of the State of Ohio and people of Cuyahoga County.

Today’s verdict is part of a sea change that began two years ago with this case and continues across the nation. This case prompted the United States Department of Justice, Governor John Kasich, and Attorney General Mike DeWine to investigate the patterns and practices of the Cleveland Police Department and others police departments around the state. These investigations have highlighted numerous deficiencies, including training, accountability, and transparency. Although not yet fully implemented, changes for the better have already begun. The Department of Justice investigation continues and we are confident practices will improve and benefit the citizens of Cleveland.

Our goal is to improve the quality of justice that our citizens receive. This tragic experience has already forced a culture change within the Division of Police and a needed reexamination of the use of deadly force. The end result will be less secrecy, additional transparency and accountability. Citizens and the police themselves will be safer for it.

This was a challenging case, but I would not hesitate to do it again if the facts and the law demand it. I was proud our efforts to seek justice in this case.

Contact: Joseph Frolik, Director of Communications and Public Policy. Phone: (216) 443-7488; or Cell: 216-640-6186. Email: jfrolik@prosecutor.cuyahogacounty.us