A Cleveland police officer named Michael Brelo is on trial for the killing of two unarmed people at the end of a crazy and dangerous chase through the city with 62 police cars and 100 officers in pursuit that ended with the victims and their car having 137 bullets pumped into them, 49 of them by Brelo, the last 15 after he jumped on the top of the car and fired straight down, as if he was the star in some action film. It later turned out that the insane chase and deaths may have been triggered by the victims’ car backfiring that some police thought was a gunshot.
This was one of the acts that prompted the US Justice Department and the state of Ohio to launch investigations into the workings of the police department and issue scathing reports about its excessive and indiscriminate use of force.
In yesterday’s trial proceedings, one police officer refused to testify against his colleague, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights, unless he was granted immunity.
Prosecutors got through just a couple basic questions about the identity and work history of Cleveland police officer Michael Demchak before Demchak invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination on the witness stand.
According to a report from the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, Demchak was one of 13 officers that fired their guns one night in November 2012, when two unarmed suspects were killed. Investigators concluded Demchak fired his gun four times.
Two other police officers are expected to invoke the same defense, while two have been granted immunity. There has been some debate as to whether police officers should be able to invoke the Fifth Amendment. I think that it would be a dangerous precedent to carve out exemptions to basic constitutional rights, although the temptation to do so is great in the heated atmosphere of a high-profile case.
Before the trial began, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy McGinty said in a motion that he had faced unprecedented obstruction from police.
McGinty is asking permission to treat police officers testifying in the case as hostile witnesses.
He claims virtually all the officers contacted by subpoena and letter as potential witnesses in the trial have refused to be interviewed by prosecutors or failed to respond.
McGinty’s motion reads, “This defiance by police has never occurred before…This unprecedented failure to cooperate with investigators then and now is evidence they are adverse to the State of Ohio and aligned with Brelo. They pledge their loyalty to the union and its members ahead of their duty as police officers.”
The motion claims the union told one officer expressing concerned about Brelo’s behavior “to keep his mouth shut” and not talk to anyone without the union lawyer or a union representative present.
The fact that the police officers are banding together in a code of silence makes them look very similar to organized crime syndicates or gangs.