Cleveland Verdict: Where the Threat of Blackness Prevails

A Cleveland judge ruled that it was reasonable for Police Officer Michael Brelo to fire 49 shots at a black couple in a car because of their “perceived threat.”

Fox8 Cleveland screenshot 

The numbers: 137 rounds; 49 shots from one gun; two unarmed black victims dead.

Not guilty.

Perhaps the most chilling element of the verdict in the case of Cleveland Police Officer Michael Brelo, charged with the voluntary manslaughter of two unarmed black suspects, was a mainstay phrase uttered by Judge John P. O’Donnell in his bench verdict: “reasonably perceived threat of bodily harm.”

And what was the perceived threat that Officer Brelo felt when he fired through the windshield after 100 bullets had already pierced their car? The skin color of the two suspects? Their blackness?

The facts of the case revealed that Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams’ car backfired before they led police on a 22-mile chase in November of 2012 that ultimately ended in the parking lot of a school where 13 officers, Brelo being one of them, opened fire on the car. Brelo exited his police vehicle, began firing, then climbed on the hood of the car with Russell and Williams inside and fired downward into the car’s windshield at least 15 times.

In the end, there were over 137 shots fired by the police, 49 by Brelo, and not a single round was returned by either Russell or Williams. No guns were ever found in their car.

The numbers: 137 rounds; 49 shots from one gun; two unarmed black victims dead.


There are a number of things that come to mind when one is attempting to process this verdict: the backdrop of Cleveland as a racially polarized city where many from our community are still waiting for charges to be brought against the officers who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. Or the fact that in the Brelo trial, two officers were granted immunity, while other officers refused to testify against Brelo, despite the prosecution’s assurances that they were not looking to charge additional individuals. Or the fact that the verdict was deliberately released on the Saturday of a holiday weekend because court officials were aware of the incendiary nature of the announcement and sought minimal disruption to the city.

But it is the judge’s assertion of a “perceived threat” against the officers that stands out.

O’Donnell based his ruling on the notion that Brelo’s actions were consistent with a reasonable police officer in Brelo’s position believing that the initial backfiring of the suspects’ car was gunfire, and not being sure that any threat to the officer’s bodily harm had been eliminated even after 100 rounds had been fired.

In light of police violence against blacks not only within the city of Cleveland but also across the country, however, it seems that officers may not have needed a backfiring car to establish a reasonably perceived threat; rather, the blackness of Russell and Williams was threat enough.