The voice squawked from the police radio, terse and staccato, a mix of alarm and calm.
"Old Chevy just popped a round as he passed by the mobile support, Justice Center. Westbound on Superior. Old Chevy."
It was seven hours into Cleveland policeman Michael Brelo's patrol shift on Nov. 29, 2012. At 10:31 p.m., driving north on West 25th Street, he heard the transmission from downtown, switched on his lights and sirens and hit the gas. He and his partner for the night, Cynthia Moore, sped past the West Side Market toward the Detroit-Superior Bridge.
"Two black males. Shots fired," the radio voice reported. "Popped a round right as he drove by us."
Though only age 28, Brelo had spent five years as a Cleveland police officer. An Iraq War veteran, he'd served in a Marine Reserve battalion that had suffered some of the war's heaviest losses. Police supervisors had praised Brelo for his energy, dedication and willingness to confront danger. In the first nine months of 2012, he had compiled the most arrests of anyone in the 2nd District's evening platoon.
At Detroit Avenue, Brelo turned right onto the bridge and saw another police car ahead of him, also heading toward downtown. Then a blue 1979 Malibu crested the bridge, racing the other way at 50 or 60 mph. Brelo caught a glimpse of the driver, his eyes locked straight ahead, as he passed. The first patrol car pulled a U-turn. "A Chevy just blew by us, going over the Detroit-Superior Bridge," the passenger officer radioed. Brelo followed.
The Malibu flew west on Detroit Avenue, going 60 or 70 mph. A third police car up the street tried to block its path — so the Malibu swung left onto West 45th Street. Brelo caught a glimpse of it as it made the turn. After that, as more squad cars joined the chase, Brelo could only see flashers and taillights. He followed west on Lorain Avenue, then back east on Clark Avenue toward Tremont.
"Passenger is, ah, very angry," radioed the officer in the lead car.
By the time the Malibu was halfway down Clark, so many officers had joined the chase that Brelo fell back to fifth or sixth in line.
"Heading toward Steelyard," the lead officer radioed. Then his voice shot up. "He's pointing the gun out the back window! Heads up! Everybody be careful."
The Malibu and the police cars flew past Steelyard Commons, through Tremont on West 14th Street, onto Interstate 90 toward downtown. The Malibu peeled around Dead Man's Curve and let out a bang, like a blown tire or a backfire. Then it gunned forward in the left lane, hitting 100 mph. Police sped up too, and freeway drivers pulled over, away from the caravan of screaming sirens. The Malibu exited onto East 72nd Street, rolled through the grass for a bit, then kept going.
"He does not have a gun," radioed a vice officer as the Malibu reached St. Clair Avenue. "He has a pair of black gloves on. He does not have a gun in his hand." Now the chase was cutting through Hough, down narrow residential streets. "There's a red pop can in his hands," the vice officer said.
But not two minutes later came another voice: Sgt. Patricia Coleman, a supervisor from Brelo's 2nd District. "Passenger is reaching for something underneath the glove box area," she radioed. "They're fumbling with something up in that front seat. Looks like the passenger got — possibly loading a weapon."
As Brelo drove through Hough, slowing down at intersections, his partner, Moore, helped him navigate.
"I was trying to clear intersections for him, make sure everyone was out of the way," Moore recalled later, "trying to keep him focused on driving, telling him to calm down and blink his eyes and pay attention."
The Malibu sped onto Euclid Avenue, under the Red Line Rapid tracks and into East Cleveland. Police car after police car followed, sirens flashing — dozens, mostly from Cleveland, but also from Bratenahl, the state highway patrol and the public housing authority. It took five minutes for them to pass under the Rapid bridge.
Twenty minutes into the chase, the Malibu turned onto a short side street, then raced up a long, dusty driveway into the Heritage Middle School parking lot. Several Cleveland police cars followed up the driveway, including Brelo's, toward the back. It was 10:55 p.m., and the parking lot's lights half-illuminated the speeding cars.
"Block off the back," radioed the officer in the lead car — and then his voice spiked. "Shots fired! Shots fired!"
Brelo stopped his car in the driveway, behind and to the right of another patrol car. Then he saw the headlights of the Malibu, driving toward him.
Nineteen months later, Brelo sat in a Justice Center courtroom, wearing a suit, not a uniform. Near him sat Coleman, his former sergeant, and four other police supervisors, all frowning, their brows furrowed. Brelo, his brown hair short and straight, was the youngest of the six officers.
A courtroom deputy handed them stapled sheets of paper. Brelo looked down at his. His face, squarish with blue eyes and a strong jaw, gave away little emotion.
His hands shook. His name appeared on the front page, as a defendant, below the charge of voluntary manslaughter for the events that unfolded Nov. 29, 2012.
That night, Cleveland police officers fired 137 bullets at the end of a high-speed pursuit and killed an unarmed man and woman. Sixty-two police cars joined the 22-minute chase — though the city's pursuit rules allowed only three — with some patrol cars hitting 100 to 125 mph. Thirteen officers shot their weapons in 18 seconds.
The two people killed, Timothy Russell, 43, and Malissa Williams, 30, had used cocaine before the chase. Both had criminal records and histories of addiction. Williams, who was homeless, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In February 2013, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine declared that Russell's Malibu was prone to backfiring, that there was no gun in the car at the time Russell and Williams were shot and that the officers' belief that they were ever armed was likely not true. The chase and shooting, he declared, represented "a systemic failure in the Cleveland Police Department."
In May 2014, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty announced six criminal indictments against Cleveland police officers. The five supervisors, charged with dereliction of duty, are accused of failing to control the chase. McGinty sought an indictment for only one of the 13 shooters: Brelo, who fired 49 of the 137 shots.
Brelo is accused of two counts of voluntary manslaughter, a felony. McGinty says that after Russell's car and the shooting stopped — after the threat was over — Brelo jumped on the hood of the Malibu and fired every round left in his gun.
"Officer Brelo started shooting again and fired at least 15 shots, including fatal shots, downward through the windshield into the victims at close range as he stood on the hood of Mr. Russell's car," McGinty said.
It took McGinty almost a year and a half to assemble the testimony and expert witnesses he needed to bring the case to court. There is no video of the shooting, because most of the police cars in the chase had no dashboard cameras. The critical evidence includes the autopsies of Russell and Williams, the bullet-riddled windshield, a set of dusty footprints and a recorder that caught the sound of the 137 shots.
As of mid-December, Brelo's trial was not yet scheduled but was expected in the new year. That trial will be about one man's actions in a few crucial seconds. Critics of the incident see Brelo's alleged actions as an egregious example of police brutality. His supporters argue he made his decisions in a fearful, confused instant, when it was still reasonable for him to think Williams and Russell meant to kill.
When the case reaches trial, it will be Cleveland's most-watched in years, a microcosm of local and national concerns.
The death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot in November by a rookie Cleveland policeman who claimed Rice reached for an air gun he thought was a real firearm, has shaken the city. It has revealed that many of the problems the 2012 chase and shooting exposed have gone unaddressed. In December, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced the results of a 21-month Justice Department investigation into the Cleveland police — one prompted, in large part, by the events of Nov. 29, 2012. The Justice Department found that the Cleveland police engage in a pattern or practice of excessive force, including unnecessary deadly force.
Brelo's case lays bare a challenge the Cleveland police now face: how to train officers to follow better tactics, de-escalate confrontations, combine assertiveness with restraint.
This fall, grand juries in Missouri and New York declined to indict police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, prompting nationwide protests and criticisms that the American justice system unfairly favors police who kill.
The Ferguson, Missouri, police's paramilitary response to protests of Brown's death sparked a national controversy about militarization of police. Amid that debate, Brelo's possible defense — that he followed his Marine training while shooting Russell and Williams — brings up a difficult question America rarely asks. Should war veterans who want to become police officers receive special training that ingrains in them the difference between fighting the enemy and using force on civilians?
On Feb. 24, 2011, Brelo and his frequent partner, Liz Galarza, stood in City Hall's rotunda in dress-blue uniforms, before a crowd of fellow officers and their families and friends. A commander called them forward and described how they had arrested a domestic violence suspect wielding a 12-inch butcher knife. Galarza had given the suspect a Taser blast, and Brelo had wrestled the knife out of his hand and handcuffed him.
The officers received the police department's Medal of Heroism. Brelo, looking younger than his 26 years, his hair half-shaved and in a flattop, shook hands with then-police chief Michael McGrath and Mayor Frank Jackson and posed for a photo with the mayor.
In the five years before the 2012 chase and shooting, Brelo's supervisors in the near West Side's 2nd District thought of him as disciplined, polite, energetic, eager to learn — a good officer, even a standout.
In October 2012, Lt. Mark Ketterer recommended Brelo and Galarza for a community award for "outstanding job performance and dedication." Brelo, he noted, led the district's afternoon and evening B platoon in arrests for the first nine months of 2012, with 61 felony arrests and 125 misdemeanors.
"Brelo brings with him an energy and a dedication to do a good job each and every day," Ketterer wrote. "He is a very respectful and courageous young man who skillfully charges into very dangerous situations without question or pause because that's his job!" Brelo and Galarza received the award two weeks before the Nov. 29 chase, Ketterer says.
Brelo comes from a family of police officers. His late grandfather, John J. Quinn, a World War II veteran and a Cleveland officer for 38 years, worked as a patrolman and vice detective. After his wife died young, Quinn raised five kids, including Brelo's mother. Mike Quinn, a sergeant in Cleveland's homicide unit, is Brelo's uncle and godfather.
"It was really his dream to get on the police department," Quinn says of his nephew. "In police families that's real common. You want to follow in the footsteps."
As a teen, Brelo attended St. Edward High School in Lakewood, competed on the school's wrestling team and worked at a fast-food restaurant in North Olmsted. His friend Sharon, a former co-worker, says he was protective, even then.
"If an irate customer would try to mess with someone here, he would automatically go over, try to calm down the situation, get that person out of the way," recalls Sharon, who asked that her last name be withheld because of her employer's rules against talking with the press about her workplace.
Brelo was a high school junior when al-Qaida attacked the U.S. Sept. 11, 2001.
"It devastated him," says Sharon. The 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq solidified Brelo's desire to join the Marine Corps. He enlisted as a reservist in 2003, the year he graduated from St. Edward.
Brelo served seven months in Iraq with the 3rd Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, headquartered in Brook Park. The 3/25 was deployed to the Sunni Triangle, in Iraq's western Anbar province, where the insurgency was strongest. Just before he was deployed, Brelo was pulled from his job as an armory custodian to join a rifle platoon at a small forward operating base outside the Iraqi city of Hit.
Christopher Morgan, Brelo's supervisor in Iraq, says Brelo sprained his ankle during training in California. Once in Iraq, Morgan saw that Brelo's ankle was black and blue.
"The entire time, he's [saying,] 'Hey, whatever happens, I still want to go out. I still want to serve. I still want to fight. Don't send me home.' I [said,] 'Hey, your biggest concern is getting ready to walk again.' "
A lance corporal, Brelo was one of four school-trained infantrymen in the platoon.
"[With] his knowledge of working the machine gun, everybody came to him with all sorts of questions as far as tactics," Morgan says.
Brelo was never in a firefight and never fired his weapon in Iraq. The base outside Hit, home to about 160 troops on average, however, was attacked by mortar and rocket fire three to four times a day in April and May 2005. From afar — maybe 400 meters — the Marines would see a plume of smoke, hear a bang and judge whether the fire was incoming. Morgan recalls Brelo directing others' machine gun fire in the direction of attacks.
Brelo's platoon suffered no fatalities, but the 3/25 as a whole incurred some of the heaviest casualties of the Iraq War: 48 troops were killed in those seven months. Brelo's Brook Park supervisor, Dan Priestley, was severely injured in an ambush.
The 3/25 returned from Iraq in late 2005. His uncle, a friend and a police lieutenant he served under all say Brelo rarely or never talked about the experience of war.
"It was tough on him," his former co-worker Sharon recalls. "In the 3/25, he lost a lot of fellow soldiers." When he returned to work at the fast-food restaurant, a message on the marquee welcomed him home. When Brelo saw it, Sharon says, he was almost in tears.
With Morgan's help, Brelo got a job as a Bedford Heights jail guard. "I am very energetic and a perfectionist," he said in his job application. He listed his school wrestling experience as a job skill and the Marines as his best job. "We just came home from Iraq," he explained, "a band of brothers."
Brelo joined the Cleveland police in October 2007. After his six months in the city's police academy, he joined the 2nd District, where his performance reviews ranged from satisfactory to outstanding. Supervisors often commented on his Marine discipline.
"[His] training as a Marine shows in his uniform appearance and his attention to detail," one supervisor wrote. "Highly motivated patrolman, USMC reservist who can take care of himself and his partner and handle dangerous situations well," wrote another.
Ketterer, the police lieutenant, calls Brelo a standout officer, intensely eager to learn. He remembers Brelo working on a sexual assault investigation with interest, while others would get frustrated at the fastidious work.
"He had no trouble finding people who wanted to work with him and train him," Ketterer says. The few exceptions were patrol officers who didn't want to work at Brelo's fast pace. "He was multitasking more than they wanted to," Ketterer adds. "And if someone was in trouble or calling for help, he was the first one there."
Brelo lives in Bay Village with his fiancee and their two young children, Ketterer says. Records show he's lived in several West Side suburbs. He moved to Cleveland in April 2008 after joining the police force, but in November 2009, five months after the Ohio Supreme Court struck down residency requirements for city workers, he moved out.
Brelo faced one accusation of excessive force before November 2012, but it did not hold up in court. In March 2010, off West 25th Street, Brelo and two other officers arrested 34-year-old Donald Pate for armed robbery after a foot chase. From state prison, where he's serving a 13-year sentence, Pate sued the officers in federal court, claiming Brelo hit him on the head with a flashlight while he was trying to surrender. Two accounts Pate gave of the incident differed, but medical records and photographs showed a minor bruise on his scalp. Judge Solomon Oliver allowed the case to go to trial. But at the brief trial this summer, in which Pate represented himself, Brelo and two other officers all testified Brelo had tackled Pate at the exact moment he stopped running, and no one had hit him with a flashlight. The judge dismissed the suit, ruling that Pate had offered no evidence to prove his case.
Brelo has two negative marks on his record with the Cleveland police. He and his frequent partner, Galarza, received letters of reinstruction after their 2010 attempt to escort a car to MetroHealth Medical Center — undertaken without a supervisor's permission — ended in a crash in front of the West Side Market. Galarza was driving; she and Brelo were both injured and spent off-duty time recovering. (The other driver was unharmed.)
Also, Brelo and Galarza were ordered to spend eight hours retraining in felony vehicle stops and firearm safety after a 2011 traffic stop ended poorly. They responded to a report of a man wielding a gun, saw the suspect's car, pulled him over and approached with guns drawn. When the man ignored their orders to show his hands, Galarza opened the passenger door and pointed her gun at him. Brelo reached into the car to turn it off and shift to park — a move the police department discourages as dangerous. The driver struggled with Brelo and drove backward. The passenger door struck Galarza's arm and her gun went off, firing a bullet into the empty passenger seat. The car, pulling both officers along with it, crashed into Galarza's patrol car, one of the few Cleveland police cars equipped with a dashboard camera. A supervisor recommended that the video of the incident be used for training "on how not to conduct a traffic stop."
Brelo and Galarza completed their reinstruction in July 2012. The next month, at his annual training, Brelo took a multiple-choice exam given to every Cleveland officer on the department's use of force policy.
Question No. 22 reads, "Intentionally firing at a moving vehicle is prohibited, unless: a) There is an imminent danger of death or serious injury to officers and or persons. b) Other means are not available to avert or eliminate the threat. c) And where feasible, some warning has been given. d) All the above." Brelo got credit for his answer, A, and was given a 100 percent score on the exam — but the city's use of force policy actually includes all of the above statements.
Next came question No. 23 — a question on which Brelo's entire career may soon hinge. It was another question about firing at vehicles. He chose the correct answer: "Officers shall NOT fire at a vehicle that is no longer an imminent threat."
As Brelo pulled up the driveway of Heritage Middle School, dust kicked up by the other cars obscured his view. He couldn't see into the school parking lot, where the Malibu cut left and officer Wilfredo Diaz's patrol car hit it. As the Malibu turned around, Diaz jumped from his car and yelled "Stop!" at the driver. Diaz later said he saw the passenger reach for a black object and thought it was a gun. Diaz started shooting.
The Malibu accelerated toward Diaz. Afraid he'd get run over, Diaz fired at the driver.
"Shots fired!" a police officer radioed.
The Malibu missed Diaz and headed back down the driveway, attempting to get out. But Brelo had cut off its escape route, pulling up behind and to the right of a patrol car blocking the other lane.
That's when Brelo saw the headlights of the Malibu. Seconds later, the Malibu smashed into the other patrol car's passenger door, a few feet from Brelo's car.
In Brelo's version of what happened next, which he gave to investigators 11 days later, he thought the Malibu was turning to come at him. He said he saw the driver and passenger point dark objects at him and his partner. He heard shots from the direction of the Malibu.
"I've never been so afraid in my life," Brelo told the investigators. "I thought my partner and I would be shot and that we were going to be killed."
Brelo drew his Glock 17 pistol. Using an ambush training lesson taught by the Cleveland police, he remained in the driver's seat and fired through his patrol car's windshield at the Malibu. Beside him, Moore opened fire too. Brelo thought his gun jammed, so he loaded a new magazine, then jumped out of the car. He ran left, seeking cover behind the other parked patrol car, firing more shots at the suspects as he ran.
"Because there's still rounds going all over the place, I feel like I'm being shot [at] by these suspects," he said. "I see the suspects kept on moving and firing, shooting at us."
He dropped behind the other patrol car. His gun's magazine, which carried 17 rounds, was empty. He reloaded again.
The Malibu was still on the other side of the patrol car, up against it. To his left, he saw other officers firing at it. Afraid he'd get shot by friendly fire, or that the Malibu's driver might try to ram his way out, Brelo climbed up on the patrol car's trunk.
"I felt that if I could at least find some elevation, I could shoot into the suspect's vehicle and try to stop the threat," he recalled. "I keep hearing the rounds going off, I see the suspects moving, and I couldn't understand why they were still moving [and] shooting at us."
He crouched over the flashing lights of the patrol car and shot into the Malibu.
That, Brelo told investigators, was the last moment he remembered from the shooting.
His next memory, he said, was of being next to the Malibu's driver-side door. His gun was back in his holster. Other police were shouting, "Cease fire." He reached into the car, shifted it to park, turned off the car and put the keys on its hood.
Investigators spent the entire night searching and photographing the scene. They laid numbered markers next to each bullet fragment. When they got past 99, they started writing the numbers on evidence tags. They left the Malibu as it was, with the bodies of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams inside. In the morning, the Malibu was hauled to the medical examiner's office on a flatbed truck.
Russell was in the driver's seat, dead after 23 gunshot wounds. Williams, his passenger, had been shot 24 times. Medical examiner's employees removed their bodies from the car and searched it.
There was no gun.
The Malibu was transported to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation office in Richfield. BCI agents spent three days searching and photographing the car.
They didn't find a gun, either. Nor was one found in the driveway, the parking lot, in the grass nearby or anywhere along the 20-mile chase route.
The 13 officers had caught one another in crossfire.
The car had 92 bullet holes in it, 58 of them in the windshield. Twenty-five bullets and bullet fragments were found inside it but no spent bullet cartridges. On the floorboard below the passenger seat lay an empty red Coca-Cola can. On the front seat were two lighters and a charred glass crack pipe.
On the passenger side of the hood, investigators found a pair of dusty footprints. A 9 mm cartridge case had fallen off the car, to the garage floor. It matched Brelo's pistol.
Meanwhile, other investigators began interviewing the 13 officers who'd fired their guns. They started with Brelo's partner, Moore, who had fired 19 rounds, the most after Brelo's 49. Moore, too, said she thought she saw the driver and passenger pointing guns at her. She remembered other officers yelling at the suspects to show their hands. "The shots were like going off forever, and it felt like I was being shot at," she said.
Officers Brian Sabolik and Mike Farley had pulled up just as the gunfire began. Sabolik said he'd gotten out of his car and fired four rounds at the driver.
"Then I stopped firing," Sabolik said, "because I saw somebody jump on the hood of the car. A police officer." Sabolik said he saw the officer shoot down into the Malibu from atop its hood.
"Later on, you found out what was up on the hood of the car?" an investigator asked. "How did you find that out?"
"Because he was talking about it," Sabolik answered.
"Who was that?"
Farley, Sabolik's partner, said he had caught a glimpse of Brelo shooting from the trunk of a patrol car, before Brelo is alleged to have jumped on the Malibu.
Brelo was the last of the 13 shooters interviewed by investigators. Nervous, he took awkward drinks from a water bottle. As he recounted the shooting, he broke down crying.
The investigator asked Brelo if he recalled being on the Malibu's hood.
"No, sir. It's possible, because I was so terrified that I was going to get ran over. But I don't recall that, sir."
He was asked if he feared for his safety and that of the other officers.
"The most I've ever been in my life, sir, even with Iraq," he said. "I thought we were going to be rammed, and I thought we were going to get shot and be killed."
Just before the interview ended, Brelo added a possible explanation for why he might have been on the Malibu's hood.
"In Marine Corps training, they always teach you to elevate, and if a target is threatening you, you go through the target," Brelo said. "In my training, you were supposed to push through the target."
An investigator asked if Brelo was wearing the same shoes he'd worn on the night of the shooting. He was. They asked to take a shoe print. He agreed.
"We see many disturbing facts here," said Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tim McGinty at Attorney General Mike DeWine's 2013 press conference. "Neither Ms. Williams or Mr. Russell deserved to be killed that November night.
"Chases like this draw the most courageous, dedicated officers to them. However, if they overreact, let the offender control the event and disregard police policy, the police become the larger danger to the public and themselves."
Over the next 16 months, as McGinty's prosecutors studied the shooting, they focused on Brelo. The footprints on the Malibu's hood were his. An investigative report showed that the trajectories of most of the windshield's bullet holes were from the front and the right — the direction where the footprints were found. Williams' autopsy showed that nine of the 12 shots that hit her head, neck and chest came from someone shooting down at her, from the front. Russell's autopsy found 13 gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen with similar trajectories: also downward, from the front.
Each was also shot in the head from another angle.
The number of bullets an officer shoots — 49 in Brelo's case — doesn't matter in court. The legal question in excessive force cases, set by the U.S. Supreme Court, is whether a "reasonable officer at the scene" would believe that a suspect posed a threat of death, or great bodily harm, at the moment the officer fired his gun. Legally, the police can't be judged on the fact that Williams and Russell were actually unarmed in the parking lot. They can only be judged by what they knew at the time — whether Williams and Russell reasonably seemed like a threat and whether the threat had ended.
Prosecutors hired Ken Katsaris, a longtime tactical instructor for police who has evaluated hundreds of police shootings. In Katsaris' report, delivered in September 2013, he declared that 12 of the 13 officers were justified in firing at Williams and Russell, because they'd heard the radio broadcasts about a gun and because of Russell's reckless driving. Brelo, too, was justified when he fired his first shots, Katsaris said. But after, Brelo "violated police tactical procedures of staying behind cover, evaluating the action and ... giving verbal commands," he wrote.
Police can't shoot suspects simply because they're still moving, he added. "He was not in combat," Katsaris wrote. "This was a civilian police operation."
Prosecutors began submitting evidence to the grand jury in fall 2013. After some legal wrangling, officers Sabolik and Farley testified before the grand jury in March 2014.
Next, prosecutors turned to an audio recording of the shooting, from the dash cam of a Bratenahl policeman who joined the chase. The audio captures an 8 1/2-second volley of shots of different tones and volumes. Then comes a four-second pause, with one faint gunshot in the middle of it. Then comes a final, 5-second volley of shots, with a staccato rhythm and a similar volume and tone.
In early May, with a month left in the grand jury's term, an assistant prosecutor wrote to an audio expert, asking him to analyze "whether the last gunshots are from one individual."
Three days before the grand jury's term expired, the U.S. Supreme Court decided a new case about a police shooting at the end of a long chase. The court ruled that police can shoot at a moving car if the driver is operating so recklessly that he gravely endangers the public. "Officers need not stop shooting until the threat has ended," the court ruled. However, the court added, "This would be a different case if [police] had initiated a second round of shots after an initial round had clearly incapacitated [the suspect] and had ended any threat of continued flight."
The next day, the audio expert delivered his report. Based on the tones and cadence of the shots, he declared that 15 of the 18 shots in the second volley were from one gun. He said the other three appeared to be from another shooter and location.
On May 30, the grand jury voted to charge Brelo with two counts of voluntary manslaughter — provoked killings. Each count is punishable by three to 11 years in prison.
Although Brelo's lawyers did not respond to several calls from Cleveland Magazine, Jeffrey Follmer and Steve Kinas, the president and vice president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen's Association, sat for a lengthy interview soon after Brelo's indictment. They argued that Brelo's 49 shots were all reasonable based on what he and other officers saw and heard at the time.
"They're being told these guys have guns, have shot at the police," Kinas said. "Everybody believed that this was a very aggressive, hostile, violent, scary situation. When that car got boxed in there on that parking lot, their mindset was that this is the worst thing I'm going to face in my career."
Russell's long flight and Williams' pointing gestures led police to think they were a deadly threat, Kinas said. "They're thinking, Oh my God, all these cops — these guys still aren't stopping. This is Bonnie and Clyde we're chasing."
Follmer and Kinas accompanied Brelo and other officers to their interviews with DeWine's investigators. Although they'll hand over their jobs to successors Jan. 1, the union's support of Brelo is not expected to change.
Follmer and Kinas don't buy McGinty's distinction between a first, justified volley of shots and the second volley of shots. They argued the deadly threat wasn't over.
"The car is the weapon," Kinas said. "They can still put the car in reverse and hit the officers that are behind them." He and Follmer said jumping on the hood of a suspect's car and firing could be a proper police tactic.
"To stay out of the front of the vehicle, to get yourself up to higher ground — nothing prohibits that from happening," Kinas said.
Does Brelo's statement that he might've followed a Marine combat training lesson to "push through the target" apply to policing?
"In police work, you don't really see that type of battlefield scenario that I think they're talking about in Marine combat training," Kinas said.
"But it could be used based on whatever the scenario is," Follmer said. "Not one of these shootings is ever the same, so you can never say."
"Our training is based on stopping the threat," Kinas said.
Forensics will play a major role in Brelo's trial. To convict him of voluntary manslaughter, prosecutors will have to prove that some of Brelo's last 15 shots were fatal. "Each of the bodies had 22-plus rounds in them," Follmer said. "How do you determine which one was the fatal one?" (If it can't be done, the jury could still consider lesser charges such as attempted manslaughter.)
Brelo's defense might also revive a debate about whether Russell and Williams were armed when the chase began. Testing found gunshot residue on both suspects' hands and inside the Malibu, above the windows. DeWine's investigators judged that since some police fired at the Malibu at close range, the residue tests did not reveal whether there was a gun in the car. Follmer and Kinas disagree. "We do believe there was a gun in the beginning," Follmer said.
Brelo's professed gap in his memory — his claim that he couldn't remember being on the Malibu's hood 11 days after the shooting — will likely be a major point of contention. Prosecutors are likely to subpoena Sabolik to testify that after the shooting, Brelo identified himself as the officer on the Malibu's hood.
Lt. Ketterer says Brelo told him a similar story by phone the morning after the shooting.
"I don't know what vehicle," Ketterer says, "but he did, in that phone conversation, say he had gotten on the hood of a car."
A study of police officers involved in shootings found that 47 percent experienced memory loss about some or all of the incident, according to On Combat by Dave Grossman. Memory is typically the most broken right after an incident, the book says, with more gaps filling in later. Follmer and Kinas say that fits the experience of officers they know.
Can it go the other way — clear memory at first, gaps later? "Both are very common," says Sid Heal, president of the California Association of Tactical Officers and a retired Los Angeles Sheriff's Department commander. Heal says studies show that memory loss and other perceptual distortions are common in people who survive life-threatening trauma.
In the past two months, the national debate about police shootings of unarmed African-Americans has upended Cleveland's sleepy politics, challenged its leaders and taken over the citywide conversation. The Justice Department's disturbing report on abuses by the Cleveland police and the fatal shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice outside Cudell Recreation Center in November have amplified questions about the deaths of Williams and Russell.
Protesters took over the Shoreway, laid down under Playhouse Square's chandelier and interrupted normally placid City Council meetings. Police critics have a shorthand for Williams' and Russell's deaths: "137 shots." The issues raised aren't going away, they're growing.
The police killings of Nov. 29, 2012, and Nov. 22, 2014, are similar in important ways — a sign of problems left unsolved, challenges unmet. In both, the suspects were unarmed people of color. In both, police radio broadcasts amplified reports of a gun, while warnings that the suspect might not have a real firearm were ignored during the 2012 chase and not broadcast before Tamir's death. Officers escalated both confrontations rather than de-escalating them — a key complaint in the Justice Department report.
Both incidents suggest a breakdown in police relationships with the community, says Sheila Wright, executive director of the NAACP's Cleveland branch. "You would think that someone with a connection to the community would allow calmer heads to prevail."
Russell and Williams were black, while 12 of the police shooters were white and one Hispanic. Investigators asked Brelo and other officers if they heard any racial comments at the shooting scene and if they thought the incident was racially motivated. Brelo and others said no.
The wider argument about whether police are more likely to kill black suspects isn't only about explicit prejudice, but "an implicit bias, something that exists on a subconscious level," says Samuel Walker, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Omaha. An October investigation by the nonprofit journalism outlet ProPublica found that black males ages 15 to 19 are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white males of the same age. A much-cited scientific study has found that both police officers and regular citizens showed a shooter bias in simulated video games, firing faster and more often at black suspects.
The 2012 incident, which helped prompt the Justice Department's excessive-force investigation, appears often in its report. It calls the 137 shots "an enormous amount of force" and asserts it "inflamed community perceptions, particularly in the African-American community," that the police department is "out of control and that its officers routinely engage in brutality."
It even says the shooting is part of a pattern — that in more than one incident, Cleveland police justified firing their guns by saying they believed suspects were firing at them, when it was really other officers firing. The city's new restrictions on police chases since 2012 line up with national best practices, the report says. Yet many officers complain they're an "inappropriate overreaction" to the chase of Russell and Williams.
City councilman Jeff Johnson, a leading critic of the police department, says he was disturbed at how many officers ignored the city's limits on chases that night.
"It seems to me there was a loss of discipline," he says. "It was almost like a mob mentality had taken hold. It's frankly scary."
Eugene O'Donnell, a criminal justice lecturer at the City University of New York and former police officer, says on-duty police shootings are enormously hard to prosecute. Jurors tend to sympathize with officers going into harm's way on our behalf, he says.
David Klinger, a criminology professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former police officer, says the crossfire at the chase's end was a huge tactical failure by police — but that could actually help Brelo at a criminal trial.
"What in the world did officers do to create a situation where there were officers on at least two sides of the vehicle, shooting into the vehicle and putting rounds on each other?" Klinger says. "That's a huge problem. It's unacceptable. ... But it does become germane to a defense of, 'Is it reasonable for the officer to believe his life is in jeopardy?' "
Klinger says it may not matter that other officers stopped shooting. "If he's the only officer who has eyes on the suspect, and the suspect is in fact doing something that indicates that there is a continued threat, then deadly force is still appropriate until the threat is over with."
But Walker, author of the book The New World of Police Accountability, says the prosecutors' argument that the threat was over after the car and shooting stopped makes sense to him.
"There are innumerable cases where officers continued physical force beyond what was necessary," Walker says.
What if Brelo acted based on his military combat training? All four police experts say there's an obvious difference between war, where the job is to kill the enemy, and policing, where deadly force is allowed to protect life.
"We expect restraint in the law enforcement arena, and we expect a response in the military combat environment," says Heal, the retired Los Angeles sheriff's commander and a former Marine reservist who's served in four wars.
Heal says Brelo's "push through the target" line comes from military ambush training. Troops are taught to advance on the enemy if caught in a surprise attack. "In an ambush, you can expect an overwhelming and immediate violent response, as violent as they could possibly make it," Heal says.
Brelo's case may expose an often-ignored challenge for police departments — the need to train war veterans to replace a combat mindset with civilian policing instincts. A 2009 paper commissioned by the International Association of Chiefs of Police warned that police academies and in-service training programs need specialized training for veterans. "Current curricula do not address the heightened reactions veteran officers develop in combat to enemy threats," it says, "and how to temper these reactions to appropriate levels in policing environments."
That can be a difficult adjustment, says Heal, who has counseled fellow vets.
"You do have to pull back," Heal says. "Some do, some don't. From a personal perspective, I've had good days and bad days. It takes a conscious effort and a fairly long period of time for me, and I'm not unique."
In Cleveland, military veterans make up about 15 to 20 percent of the city's police force, according to union president Follmer. Cleveland police spokesman Ali Pillow says the department has no specific training for veterans.
The Justice Department has just warned that police need to be community-oriented, not militaristic. When Justice Department investigators visited one police district headquarters (not Brelo's 2nd District), the district commander referred to it as a "forward operating base." The phrase was also on a sign in the vehicle bay.
"Such metaphors have no place in a community-oriented police department," the report declares. The term "reinforces the view held by some — both inside and outside the division — that [it] is an occupying force."
Both sides in the Brelo case have released their evidence lists. The prosecutors' includes the Coca-Cola can that Williams was holding in her hand, which police mistook for a gun. The defense attorneys intend to bring a Cleveland police siren and emergency flashing lights, to give the jury a sense of the sights and sounds around Brelo when he fired his last shots.
Since his May 2014 indictment, Brelo has been suspended without pay. His uncle, Sgt. Quinn, says he's working for an installation company owned by his other uncles. "I think he's holding up pretty well," Quinn says.
In August, about 200 people attended a fundraiser for Brelo at the police union hall.
"He seems to be staying strong," says Brelo's former co-worker, Sharon, who saw him there. "We talked about old times. He seemed a little bit like his old self for a while."
The Nov. 2012 incident has changed Cleveland's police force, Ketterer says. Chases are called off more often. Body cameras, tested over the summer, are coming soon. "I've heard there's going to be wholesale changes," he says, noting the Justice Department report.
Brelo spent most of the year and a half between the incident and his indictment on restricted duty, handling paperwork. Hours before the May grand jury announcement, he went by Ketterer's office and said he hoped to be back on patrol soon.
"He's in a dark place, because he thinks he did the right thing," Ketterer says. "Now he's being told he didn't."