CLEVELAND — A Cleveland police officer put his and other officers' lives in danger when he got on top of a police cruiser then the hood of a car and fired into its windshield during the fatal shooting of two suspects after a high-speed chase, a use-of-force expert witness testified Monday.
The expert said patrolman Michael Brelo, 31, put himself at risk of being shot by the suspects or by police gunfire and possibly created more danger to those who would have come to his rescue, the expert testified. Despite an exhaustive search afterward, investigators concluded that the two people killed, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams, were not armed the night of Nov. 29, 2012.
Brelo is on trial on two counts of voluntary manslaughter in their deaths. The two were killed in a 137-shot barrage by 13 officers. The judge will render a verdict. If convicted on both counts, Brelo faces a maximum of 25 years in prison.
The trial headed into its third week Monday.
The expert, Kenneth Katsaris, a longtime officer and police trainer, said all the officers could reasonably believe that Russell and Williams had shot at officers in a suburban school parking lot because of reports that they were armed. The 22-mile chase began after an officer standing outside police headquarters in downtown Cleveland mistakenly thought that someone had fired a gun when it sped by. Experts later concluded Russell's car had backfired.
Brelo was the only officer charged criminally because prosecutors said he fired after the car had stopped, other officers had stopped firing and Russell and Williams no longer posed a threat. Katsaris testified that police officers are trained to neutralize threats, not to necessarily eliminate them.
"Once they're contained, surrounded, you take cover and give commands," Katsaris said. "You're not looking to eliminate the individuals by any means."
A defense lawyer asked Katsaris how Brelo could have ordered Russell and Williams to surrender while shots were being fired and cruiser sirens were blaring. Katsaris said Brelo was just 6 feet away. However, he acknowledged during questioning that other officers, like Brelo, left their cars and positions of cover and fired their weapons at Russell's car.
Katsaris wrote in his report for prosecutors that officers should have "aggressively" pursued Russell's Malibu after hearing what was believed to be gunfire and that all of the officers, including Brelo, were justified in firing at the car after it nearly struck an officer standing outside his cruiser.