Cleveland officers’ silence frustrates prosecutor in police trial

Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty says he’s run into a blue wall of silence.

Before Officer Michael Brelo’s trial began, 16 Cleveland police officers declined to meet with prosecutors to review their testimony about the officer’s shooting of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams.

Once the case reached a courtroom, seven officers exercised their 5th Amendment rights and refused to testify about Brelo, who prosecutors say leaped onto the hood of Russell’s car after a lengthy pursuit and fired 15 rounds from his pistol, killing both occupants.

The officers’ lack of cooperation led McGinty to ask the court to treat them as hostile witnesses. In court documents, he likened their silence to the actions of an “organized crime syndicate.”

McGinty declined to comment on the pending case, but in court documents his office has lambasted the officers and the police union.

Cleveland grand jury indicts six officers in deadly 2012 chase
Cleveland grand jury indicts six officers in deadly 2012 chase
“This unprecedented failure to cooperate with investigators then and now is relevant and direct evidence that some of these Cleveland police officers subpoenaed to testify refuse to do their duty and are adverse to the best interests of the city,” prosecutors wrote.

Police union President Stephen Loomis, commenting that the prosecutor has “lost his mind,” said he believes McGinty is trying to win a conviction by capitalizing on nationwide scrutiny of police that has grown after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Eric Garner in New York and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

“It’s smoke and mirrors, it’s disappointing, and it’s the act of a desperate man who doesn’t have any facts,” Loomis said.

“We’ve done nothing to obstruct — we’ve done everything to cooperate.”

The pull-apart brawl between Cleveland’s police and elected prosecutor marks one of the harshest face-offs between officers and the prosecutors responsible for investigating police wrongdoing.

While the conflict has grown during a year in which police are under increasing scrutiny over their use of force, the Brelo case marks one of the first times the sparring has spilled into a courtroom.

It’s a sharp turnaround from the once-chummy relationship between prosecutor and union president.

In 2012, when McGinty was seeking his first term as county prosecutor, he turned to the police union for support. “We actually endorsed McGinty,” Loomis said. “I did TV commercials for McGinty.”

Today, they agree on little. Loomis said he would “use every weapon in his arsenal” to make sure McGinty isn’t reelected next year.

Brelo was indicted in May 2014, nearly 18 months after the November 2012 shooting.

It began with a car chase after police thought Russell, 43, fired a gun at police near Cleveland’s downtown Justice Center. Prosecutors said they later determined the sound that sparked the wild pursuit was a car backfiring. Russell sped off with Williams, 30, in the passenger seat, starting a pursuit that eventually drew more than 100 police officers.

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FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story said the car chase began when Russel fired a gun. The chase began after police heard what they believed was a gunshot fired by Russel.

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It is unclear why Russell refused to stop. Both driver and passenger had prior convictions and had struggled with mental illness and drug abuse, but neither was known to be violent, according to Joseph Frolik, chief spokesman for McGinty.

Officers fired on Russell’s car 137 times during the 20-mile chase, which came to an end in a school parking lot when police pinned the vehicle between two cruisers. Prosecutors say Brelo, 31, leaped onto the hood of Russell’s car and fired 15 times, including the fatal shots.

james.queally@latimes.com

Twitter: @JamesQueallyLAT

http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-cleveland-police-20150517-story.html#page=2