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Supporters still seeking ‘Justice for Matt’

NILES — News that a grand jury will not be indicting two Niles police officers involved in the shooting death of Matthew Burroughs is sparking backlash from a community that for months has been calling for “Justice for Matt.”

“We feel that has not happened today,” said the Rev. Todd Johnson of Second Baptist Church in Warren, who in the intervening nearly nine months has been an active voice in calling for the release of evidence and body camera footage from the event — now available online at the Niles police website.

Burroughs, 35, of Niles, died in his car outside of the Royal Mall Apartments after Niles officers Christopher Mannella and James Reppy Jr. opened fire. Forensic and autopsy results show that Mannella fired three shots through Burroughs’ windshield, all of which struck Burroughs and caused fatal injuries, according to a presentation of a report by Niles police Capt. John Marshall. Reppy fired five times, missing Burroughs, but hitting the car.

Trumbull County Prosecutor Dennis Watkins on Friday released a 35-page document agreeing with a grand jury’s determination that the officers used fatal force because they believed Mannella’s life was threatened.

“I think it sets a terrible precedent for the trust people of color have in this legal system,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the community will be “holding Watkins accountable” for the document. Johnson said it seems more like a defense of the police than a presentation of evidence.

Both Johnson and Bria Bennett, another outspoken proponent of the #JusticeForMatt campaign, expressed dissatisfaction with Watkins’ unwillingness to have a conversation with the community.

“He already shut the community down,” said Bennett, who said it felt like Watkins was hiding from his decision.

“If Watkins was proud of his decision, then he should stand up in front of the community and give his report,” Bennett said.

Watkins said he would not be commenting further on the document.

In a closed meeting with the press, Niles police Chief Jay Holland, law director Phil Zuzulo and Mayor Steve Mientkiewicz addressed the findings, but also declined to answer questions because a civil lawsuit remains a possibility.

Holland said the investigation by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation determined that the shooting was in line with Ohio law, and with the Supreme Court case Graham v. Connon, which in 1989 established circumstances under which a law officer can reasonably use force on a suspect and how much force can be used.

“Reasonableness on a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of the officer on the scene, rather than the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” Holland said. “You have to put yourselves in the officer’s shoes at that particular moment with the facts and circumstances that he or she knew.”

The grand jury concluded that officers perceived a threat, but Johnson said there’s a certain amount of “automatic” bias to an officer’s perception of threat. He called into question why more violent white suspects have been apprehended but Burroughs was “gunned down” at what one witness described as a “near stop.”

“I think that raises a lot of questions,” Johnson said.

Bennett said #JusticeForMatt and the outcome of the months-long investigation was about more than Burroughs himself.

“This decision has a huge impact on the relationship of the police and their community. As a community member accurately stated, this decision has proved that the police can kill unarmed black men and get away with it,” Bennett said. “While I didn’t know Matt personally, this could have been my brother, my friend, my neighbor, my uncle.”

A community event to discuss the findings and mourn Burroughs is already set for 4 p.m. Sept. 21 in front of the Niles police station, according to Bennett.

avugrincic@tribtoday.com