Police in riot gear have made numerous arrests as protesters took to the streets of Cleveland, Ohio, after a judge cleared a police officer over the deaths of two unarmed black suspects killed in a barrage of gunfire.
Demonstrators gathered in central Cleveland and west side neighbourhoods after the acquittal of patrolman Michael Brelo, 31.
In a written verdict delivered to a packed courtroom, the judge said Mr Brelo’s actions in the November 2012 shootings were justified because he believed that someone in the car containing Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams fired shots at police at the beginning, middle and end of the chase.
Mr Brelo remains on unpaid suspension while officials consider administrative charges against him.
The officer put his head in his hands as the judge issued the verdict that was followed by angry protests, with some holding a mock funeral, carrying signs asking: “Will I be next?”
The city of Cleveland earlier agreed to pay the families of Mr Russell and Ms Williams a total of $3m to settle a federal civil rights action.
The acquittal came at a time of nationwide tension over the deaths of black suspects at the hands of white officers, and following a determination by the US Department of Justice that Cleveland police had a history of using excessive force and violating civil rights.
“In many American places people are angry with, mistrusting and fearful of the police,” Cuyahoga County Common Pleas judge John O’Donnell said before issuing his verdict.
But he said he would not “sacrifice” Mr Brelo to an angry public if the evidence did not merit a conviction.
Mr Brelo, who fired a total of 49 shots, including 15 through the windscreen while standing on the bonnet of the suspects’ vehicle, would have faced as many as 22 years in prison had the judge convicted him on two counts of voluntary manslaughter.
The deaths occurred after Timothy Russell’s car backfired outside police headquarters on November 29 2012. Thirteen officers fired at the car with Mr Russell and Ms Williams inside after a 22-mile chase that involved 62 marked and unmarked cars and reached 100mph.
Mr Russell, 43, and Ms Williams, 30, were each shot more than 20 times. Mr Brelo was the only officer charged because prosecutors said he waited until the pair was no longer a threat to fire his final 15 rounds.
Prosecutors argued they were alive until Mr Brelo’s final shots, but medical examiners for both sides said they could not determine the order in which the deadly shots were fired.
Mr Russell’s sister Michelle said she believed Mr Brelo would ultimately face justice.
“He’s not going to dodge this just because he was acquitted,” she said. “God will have the final say.”
Authorities never learned why Mr Russell did not stop the car. He had a criminal record including convictions for receiving stolen property and robbery. Ms Williams had convictions for drug-related charges and attempted abduction. Both were described as homeless. A crack pipe was found in the car.
The US Justice Department, US Attorney’s Office and the FBI will review the evidence and examine all available legal options, said Vanita Gupta, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division.
About 200 people walked in a mock funeral procession that had already been planned to mark six months since another deadly shooting that sparked anger in Cleveland’s black community: the killing of Tamir Rice, 12, carrying a pellet gun who was shot by a white officer in a park.
After the verdict, sheriff’s deputies stood in front of the court carrying shields as protesters chanted “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” – a rallying cry linked to the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Mr Brelo could have been convicted of lesser charges, but Judge O’Donnell determined his actions were justified following the chase, which included reports of shots fired from Mr Russell’s car, because officers perceived a threat.
Mr Brelo’s lead lawyer Patrick D’Angelo said the officer had been unfairly prosecuted and had risked his life in the incident.