Police murder unarmed black man in Niles, Ohio & FB Live videos, witness account undermine official story

Tim Tolka
7 min readFeb 9, 2019

Facebook Live videos show moments after officers shot Matthew Burroughs through the back window of his parked vehicle, which is against policy, according to police experts.

Officers fired on Burroughs seconds after intercepting him. Then, they tried to turn off his car, but Burroughs’ foot pushed on the gas as his body lurched forward, causing the car to charge into obstructions.

On January 2, police in Niles, Ohio shot Matthew Burroughs to death as he sat in his car, which police say he used as a weapon. Distrusting state and local authorities, the Trumbull County NAACP has called for an investigation by the Justice Department (DOJ) into the shooting and into the Niles Police Department (NPD). However, with the Trump administration’s withdrawal of federal oversight on local police, digging into this thorny investigation has fallen to the state attorney general’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), which is supposed to relieve local agencies of conflicts of interest but which some residents still don’t trust to provide an impartial investigation. Chauncey Harris, Sr., who is part of a FB group calling for justice, told me, “We want somebody that isn’t linked to NPD, someone who can do it without being biased at all.”

A Photo from Burroughs’ family GoFundme Page

Niles, Ohio is an quiet, blue collar town of 18,000 outside of erstwhile working class mecca of Youngstown. Once the regional headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, the governor had to deploy the National Guard to Niles and impose martial law in 1924 to quell a race riot. Both the Klan and the mafia were able to bend the Niles police to their will. According to a whistleblower, former Niles Police Chief Bruce Simeone worked in various capacities for Lenny Strollo, the notorious Youngstown mob boss. Chief Simeone’s relatives in the city government and court protected him from scrutiny while he covered up crimes, ran illegal rackets, and paid kickbacks to cronies.

Niles police have flown under the federal radar, partially because only a few miles away, the police of Warren were so violent that black residents lived in terror, but a culmination of civil rights lawsuits and viral videos prompted Obama’s DOJ to impose a five-year consent decree in 2012. However, federal anti-corruption probes recently attempted to deracinate entrenched political graft in Niles. Mayor Ralph Infante was sentenced to 10-years for corruption, scoring a spot in top twenty American public officials with the longest prison sentences.

To get an idea of Nile’s corruption during Infante’s tenure, consider: In 1996, then-Captain Bruce Simeone supervised a cover-up of his negligence in a traffic accident where he killed two people while traveling at 90-mph at night with no headlights. All documentation was altered or destroyed, which required cooperation between multiple law enforcement agencies. If a witness considered exposing the scandal, they received death threats. This is the way things have traditionally been done in Trumbull County, but this precedent may be broken in one of America’s first fatal officer-involved shootings of 2019 because the official story is falling apart. The local media, as usual, has its hydra-heads in the sand.

Pastor of Second Baptist Church Todd Johnson spoke gravely of his concerns on Facebook Live:

A lot of the things that were said initially about how this supposedly happened…have not been reported as true. There needs to be a tight watch on this situation. I trust that outside forces, FBI, BCI, Justice Department (DOJ), whomever, would…ensure that there is no covering up of culpability…for this incident.

Domestic Dispute Leads to Warrant, and Shooting

On January 2, Burroughs went to Niles courthouse to appear over a domestic dispute he had with his girlfriend on December 17. Although the hearing was canceled, a probation officer ordered Burroughs to stay because of the related warrant, but Burroughs wasn’t having it. Niles Police Chief Jay Holland later stated Burroughs “started the car and [put] the car in reverse and accelerated, striking the probation officer with the still-open door as he backed up.” Over the radio, officers heard that Burroughs tried to run over an officer.

Burroughs appeared to head home with one officer on his tail and others waiting at his complex. At 2:34:30, one officer was heard intoning on the police scanner, “I don’t know if he’s gonna stop, man.” According to the call for service record, at 2:34:52, police radioed that they were pulling into Royal Mall Apartments, Burroughs’ home. A few seconds later, police called for an ambulance. At 2:35:07, only fifteen or twenty seconds after arrival, an officer stated, “All ok, [Burroughs] is not.” He was pronounced dead on the scene.

The only witness, a maintenance worker, was instructed “no one” is to talk to the media, but a local who talked to him relayed his account to me, asking to remain anonymous. The maintenance worker said that Burroughs pulled into the complex but turned his car around as police approached. Next, they boxed him in and ordered him to stop, which he did. Then, they fired. After the gunfire stopped, police asked Burroughs to put his hands up. Now, this witness is silenced, fearing he’ll lose his job if he talks about what he saw.

Hearing gunshots, residents immediately came to see what had transpired, phones in hand. The first Facebook Live video, of which the last third was posted by local media, was taken from inside an apartment, looking out the window. The second Facebook Live video, unreleased to the public, was recorded by Erica Baughman, who was outside. Both videos show Burroughs’ car’s front bumper stopped up against a wooden fence with four officers next to and behind the car and two others in the background. One officer on the driver’s side is still in shooting position. It is not clear whether Burroughs is alive or dead at this point, but the officers do not render medical assistance. Instead, the driver and the passenger side door are open and one officer reaches in the car in an attempt to secure the vehicle, after which Burroughs’ foot presumably presses on the gas, causing the car to crash into a fence and another car. The victim’s body remained on the scene until 9:30 that evening.

The Official Explanation v. Police Expert Analysis

A week after the shooting, Chief Holland gave a press conference to correct “misinformation,” saying “Our agency has never claimed that Burroughs possessed or used a firearm during this incident,” as was rumored by some residents after the shooting. The chief dispelled accusations of racial discrimination, noting that Burroughs is the first African American victim of three officer-involved shootings since he became chief in 2011.

The chief explained why officers needed to use deadly force: “Burroughs then drove towards the initial responding officers. It was at that point, the officers perceived a threat to their safety.” Paul McCauley, a former police officer and professor of criminal justice at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, told me on the phone:

The rule is that you may shoot at a moving vehicle only when there is a weapon other than the vehicle involved or unless there is imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death, but the rear window shot out… would indicate to me that the vehicle was going forward or stopped- [it] was not a threat to the shooting officer…

Philip Stinson, an ex-cop and professor of criminal justice at Bowling Green University, cautioned that the case was a difficult one to judge from afar: “We do have a problem with officers firing into cars moving away,” but “[Burroughs’ car] could have been going in reverse,” he said in an interview. If so, Burroughs’ car would have moved in reverse in the video, which it does not.

Last Monday, the NPD released the names of two officers currently on paid leave over the incident, James Reppy and Christopher Mannella. Reppy’s name does not appear on the call for service record; which Professor Maria Haberfeld of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice told me “is red flag that should be explained.” The NPD has so far declined to release the officers’ disciplinary records or footage from dash or body-cams.

Mannella, a 28-year veteran of NPD, was involved in another shooting death in 2004 where it wasn’t initially clear who fired first, but Chief Simeone claimed the armed suspect charged at him and Mannella, and BCI later gave the shooting their blessing.

The Community Response

On January 3, Tara Elkins, Burroughs’ pregnant girlfriend, said through tears in a televised interview, “They didn’t have to kill him.” On January 6, there was a vigil. On January 13, there was a rally. Lea Dotson, a Warren resident who attended both, observed in a call, “[The police] keep changing the story about these little nuances of language where [they say] he tried to run somebody over- No, he turned his car toward them. [It’s] like they’re trying to get a story straight.”

According to Fred Harris, a black former Warren Safety Services Director whose grandchildren live in Niles, “It’s not a policeman’s job to say whether you are innocent or guilty,” he said in an interview. “A cop just doesn’t say, ‘He’s running away. He’s guilty.’” A group of concerned locals advocating for justice on Facebook is calling for an outside investigation, a special prosecutor and the release of all footage from the incident. They have spoken out at City Council meetings and organized a phone bank to call local officials, but the NPD is waiting them out, promising transparency. When asked what might happen if the Justice Department doesn’t intervene, Dotson told me, “I don’t see them indicting him without pressure from outside the community.”

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Tim Tolka

Author, screenwriter, and journalist. Author of Blue Mafia. IL, LA, CO, TX, FL, VA, NYC, DC, and SF. https://www.timtolka.com/