Still from body cam video

Still from body cam video released by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations.

Advocacy groups responded to body cam footage from the July police killing of a Nelsonville resident, with the future of the case now in the hands of the Athens County prosecutor after the state’s investigation wrapped up last week.

Michael Whitmer, 37, of Nelsonville was killed on July 27 when Hocking College Police Officer Cecil Morrison fired a gun into Whitmer’s vehicle as Whitmer apparently attempted to flee with his four-year-old child visible in the back seat. Despite bullets shattering both the front and back windows of the car, the child was reportedly unharmed in the incident.

Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn confirmed he received the Ohio BCI’s investigation into the incident on Wednesday of last week. The BCI previously told the Messenger Blackburn will have three options: decline to indict; send the case to a special prosecutor; or take the case to a grand jury.

Blackburn said he has “no sense of timeline” for the future of the case.

“We receive 700 felony complaints a year, and we will process this as we process all of them,” Blackburn said.

As previously reported by The Athens Messenger, a 40-second body cam video released by the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation in September appears to show the entirety of Morrison’s response to the incident, from arrival on the scene through the shooting that resulted in Whitmer’s death.

Morrison was called to the scene to support Nelsonville Police Officer KJ Tracy’s response to a domestic violence report. As NPD Chief Scott Fitch previously told the Messenger, Tracy was shot and hospitalized following the incident due to ricocheting bullets fired by Morrison.

With the future of the case now in Blackburn’s hands, the Messenger solicited responses to the body cam footage from advocacy groups active in police accountability from various perspectives.

A representative of the National Police Accountability Project, a nonprofit project of the National Lawyers Guild dedicated to ending abuse of authority on the part of law enforcement and detention officers, said given available information it appears Morrison’s “conduct was an inappropriate use of force.”

“Most use of force policies prohibit police officers from shooting into a fleeing vehicle unless the driver is threatening the officer or another person with deadly harm by a means other than the vehicle,” National Police Accountability Project Legal Director Lauren Bonds said in an email, with emphasis included.

Bonds added, “Many court cases have found that shooting into a fleeing vehicle constitutes excessive force when the vehicle is in the process of driving away from the officer as appears to be the case here. There is a huge risk of harm to the driver, passengers, and bystanders when an officer shoots at a moving vehicle. Unless the officers received information that Mr. Whitmer had threatened to harm the child in the car, it seems unlikely this shooting was justified.”

In contrast, the National Association of Police Organizations, a coalition of police unions, said not enough information was available to meaningfully assess Morrison’s conduct, and that offering an opinion would not be responsible “given the gravity of the situation for all parties involved.”

Executive Director Bill Johnson said in an email that any analysis would have to take into consideration a great deal of information not currently available, including, for example, “other video/audio recordings that might exist; what the officers knew; what the officers had been told; what the officers believed; what happened during the entire encounter, not just during the portion shown in this body cam video; any statements made by the participants/officers/witnesses prior to or contemporaneous with the firing of the officer’s weapon; and any forensic analyses of evidence.”

Sabrina Jordan, founder of Ohio Families United Against Police Brutality, dedicated to ending qualified immunity for police officers in Ohio, acknowledged that the entire story is not available.

However, Jordan said she was “disgusted” by Morrison’s actions and that Morrison’s decisions were “reckless and unempathetic” and showed “no regard for the child, who will probably be traumatized for life.”

On behalf of Ohio Families Unite for Political Action and Change, the 501©(4) arm of Ohio Families United Against Police Brutality, Jordan said in an email, “Once again, another life is gone far too soon due to American policing... In short, what this video shows is a continuation in the devaluation of human life, community bonds, and a heavy hand of justice which acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Above all we wish the family as much peace and solace as they can find during these dark and tragic times which have been exacerbated by this needless and senseless death.”

Jordan lost her 23-year-old son, Jamarco McShann, after he was shot and killed by a police officer in 2017, according to the organization’s website.

The Messenger requested the BCI’s investigation into Whitmer’s death but did not receive it by press time.

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