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Cleveland Simmers In Wake Of Officer's Manslaughter Acquittal

ARUN RATH, HOST:

There are peaceful protests in Cleveland today after a white police officer was found not guilty in the shooting deaths of a black motorist and his passenger. The case stems from a car chase in 2012 that ended with police firing 137 gunshots. From member station WCPN, Nick Castele reports on a case that has gripped Cleveland residents for more than two years.

NICK CASTELE: In November 2012, more than 60 police cars pursued the driver and passenger of a Chevy Malibu. Police believed one of them had fired at officers. Following a long chase, they cornered the car in a middle school parking lot where 13 officers began shooting as the car drove toward them. Officer Michael Brelo fired 49 of the 137 gunshots, including shots through the windshield as he stood on the hood of the car. Driver Timothy Russell and passenger Malissa Williams were killed.

Investigators later found that the police were wrong. Neither was armed. Brelo was the only officer brought up on manslaughter charges. He waived his right to a jury, allowing Judge John O'Donnell to deliver a verdict. O'Donnell ruled the prosecution didn't prove it was Brelo's shots that killed the two. He further said that in a hail of gunfire, Brelo reasonably believed they posed a threat.

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JOHN O'DONNELL: He described it as worse than being under attack from rockets and mortars while serving as a Marine in Iraq. Brelo did not fire too quickly or at a person who was clearly unarmed or clearly unable to run him over. He did not fire at somebody walking or running away.

CASTELE: After the verdict, Brelo left the courtroom in tears. Prosecutors say they accept the judge's conclusion and pledge to continue their case against five police supervisors who face dereliction of duty charges in connection with the case. Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty says he hopes the trial will push police departments to adopt stricter policies and better training for both chases and the use of force.

TIMOTHY MCGINTY: If we correct the failures that made this tragedy possible, the city and its citizens do not have to suffer through another such fiasco.

CASTELE: Timothy Russell's family wonders why more police officers weren't put on trial in the first place. His sister, Michelle Russell, says the issues are bigger than just one police officer.

MICHELLE RUSSELL: We really need to look at the underlying issues and what's going on within the police department and, you know, the culture of the police department.

CASTELE: Cleveland mayor, Frank Jackson, and city officials have been preparing for this verdict and for protests for weeks. At a press conference, Jackson says the city welcomes demonstrations but adds a caution.

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FRANK JACKSON: While we encourage and support peaceful protests, I want to make sure that those who are here that have a different agenda understand that actions that cross the line, whether by police officers or citizens, cannot and will not be tolerated.

CASTELE: The mayor is in the middle of police reform negotiations with the Justice Department, which last year found that officers routinely used excessive force.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: No verdict - turn us around.

CASTELE: Outside the Justice Center and in West Side neighborhoods, protesters express their dissatisfaction with the verdict. Troy Harris says what the Justice Department found in Cleveland, it could find in other cities.

TROY HARRIS: This is not just a Cleveland thing. This is not just a Baltimore thing. This is not just a Missouri thing. This is a United States thing. So we're just uncovering bits and pieces of a big puzzle that they know exists.

CASTELE: Protester Gilda Malone says while she can't change the verdict, voters can organize.

GILDA MALONE: And we can start forcing the mayor to help change things in our community, and we can unite with the police and start telling the police what we expect of them.

CASTELE: And Cleveland is awaiting decisions in a number of other cases that have galvanized protests, including the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by an officer six months ago. While the trial of Officer Michael Brelo is over, the Justice Department says its Civil Rights Division will begin reviewing the evidence considered in the case to see if federal involvement is warranted. For NPR News, I'm Nick Castele in Cleveland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.