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Brelo Verdict Shows The Difficulty In Applying Use Of Force Standards


One of the striking aspects of the Brelo decision was the meticulous way Judge John O'Donnell explained it. He spent nearly an hour going into his reasoning, even using props, two mannequins representing the victims, Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams. For as many questions the judge was trying to answer in his 34-page verdict, it raised other ones. And here to talk about some of those is Michael Benza. He teaches law at Case Western Reserve University. We reached him at his home in Bainbridge, a suburb of Cleveland. Welcome to the program.

MICHAEL BENZA: Oh, it's my pleasure.

CORNISH: One of the things people heard in the explanation was regarding Officer Brelo and his actions in terms of getting on top of the hood and firing into the windshield - that it was wrong, but that it wasn't illegal. Help us understand what the judge said.

BENZA: Well, and that's really the underlying struggle that we're seeing when it comes to police use of force is we have different standards that get applied. There is the standard that the officers are trained to and how they're supposed to work, and then we have the constitutional standard. And the judge, I think, very pointedly went through one of the expert testimony about all of the things that Officer Brelo did wrong and then said, but that's not the constitutional standard. And that's where the judge really spent some time talking about the fact that he did find that while it was wrong - he should not have been afraid - that these people weren't a threat - it was reasonable for him to be afraid given the circumstances of what was happening in that parking lot that evening.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, in reaction to the prosecutor's performance, legal experts and just people on social media have been asking about the fact that there were 13 officers on the scene, and why did the prosecution just focus on Officer Brelo?

BENZA: There's probably two reasons why they went only with charges against Officer Brelo. The first is his conduct was much more severe after that initial volley of shots was fired. The prosecutors also very clearly made the decision that the first round of firing was within the constitutional limits of use of force. And so it really was the last 18 rounds that the prosecutor was focusing on. And then they could clearly identify those rounds as coming - 15 of those rounds coming from Officer Brelo.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, people have brought up questions about how this case came forward in the first place. What, to you, are some legitimate questions about the prosecution's case?

BENZA: The prosecutors had to have known from the very beginning that to charge this officer with manslaughter was going to require them to show that he, in fact, fired the fatal shots. And I don't see how they ever had the idea that they had the evidence to show that he was the one who fired the fatal shots.

CORNISH: How could this impact other similar cases that are on the way, especially given the, say, behavior of the other officers who were on the scene who were not necessarily cooperative in this case?

BENZA: Well, for one thing, I think it might help us continue to have this discussion about the police use of force and how those decisions are made. We have struggled for a long time on how to balance two different competing interests. One is the ability of law enforcement to do their job, which can be quite dangerous and does require at times a use of force. People resist arrest. They flee. They shoot back. And so we do want to enable the police to do their jobs and allow them to use reasonable force when necessary. On the other hand, we want to make sure that the police don't abuse that power and use it in situations where they shouldn't where you end up with innocent people or even guilty people being harmed when they shouldn't be. Unfortunately, we can't do both of those things at the same time.

CORNISH: Michael Benza - he teaches law at Case Western Reserve University. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BENZA: It's my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.