Ohio City police jury awards $4.4 million to family of man killed by police officer

from Bad-police-and-spend department

You may think you can take a hands-off approach to local law enforcement. But you would be wrong. Trusting the police on the police never worked. If you are not targeted by a DOJ investigation, everything you did under the supervision of your police officers can (and will) be used against you in a court of law.

Welcome to Euclid, Ohio, a town of 50,000 with a troubled police department. A few years ago, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals took away immunity from plainclothes officers who deliberately beat a black man after putting himself in sufficient danger to justify the deployment of additional force.

It started with an unexcused stop where officers claimed Lamar Wright failed to deploy his turn signal. (The court noted that no dash cam footage was available to verify this claim.) But the officers’ body cameras captured what happened next:

[Officer] Flagg then tried to pull Wright from the car, but the latter had difficulty getting out. As mentioned, Wright recently had surgery for diverticulitis, which required staples in his stomach and a colostomy bag in his abdomen. Although the officers apparently did not see the bag and staples, these items prevented Wright from easily moving from his seat. Wright put his right hand on the car’s center console to get out of the car. At this point Williams moved to stand behind the flag on the driver’s side. Williams responded to Wright’s arm movement by approaching the flag to pepper-spray Wright at point-blank range. Flagg simultaneously placed his Taser in Wright’s stomach. The trapped prisoner eventually managed to get out of the car with his hands up. He was then forced to the ground, where he explained to officers that he had a “shit bag” on him. Officer Williams later handcuffed Wright while he was on the ground.

The appeals court said the officers’ actions were not justified by Wright’s actions or anything else they observed before they made the stop. Going further, they allowed claims against the city of Euclid to proceed. The city was also potentially at fault, the court said, citing its use of force training materials obtained by Euclid PD Wright — materials that joked about excessive force and graphics that glorified police brutality. Here’s what the Sixth Circuit said when allowing “failure to train” claims to go forward:

It’s troubling that the City of Euclid’s law-enforcement training included a cartoon with a message that mocked and beat Rodney King in one of the most infamous police encounters in history—and twisted the police mission.. Offensive statements and depictions in training contradict the law enforcement officer’s moral responsibility to “serve the community; to protect life and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the vulnerable against oppression or intimidation, and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and respecting the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.

Given this background, it’s no surprise that another Euclid officer is on the hook for rights violations en route to the wrongful killing of another black resident of Euclid:

A jury on Tuesday awarded $4.4 million to the family of a man shot and killed by a Euclid police officer in 2017.

Officer Matthew Rhodes acted recklessly when he pulled up to 23-year-old Luke Stewart’s car and shot him as Stewart drove away from a stop, an eight-member jury unanimously held after a trial in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Stewart’s mother.

And here’s how Officer Rhodes got here: “The guy sleeping in the car” ignores almost everything about good police work in hopes of getting more out of caring community interaction.

Rhodes shot and killed Stewart around 7 a.m. on March 13, 2017, after Rhodes and fellow Euclid officer Louis Catalani were called to the scene by a resident who reported a car he didn’t recognize parked on the street in front of his home. Stewart was asleep in the driver’s seat, and officers said they saw things in the car that led them to suspect she might have been impaired.

Rhodes and Catalani did not turn on their police car’s red and blue lights or dashboard cameras during the encounter. The department did not provide officers with body cameras at the time so there is no video of the interaction between the officer and Stewart.

Neither Rhodes nor Catalani identified themselves as police officers. They shined their police car’s bright lights on Stewart’s car as they walked up to it.

When confronted with the facts, Officer Rhodes chose to lie. He claimed he shot Stewart because he was afraid he was trying to drive them both into a telephone pole that would send them both flying through the windshield. Under questioning, he admitted that the car was in neutral when he shot Stewart, a confession prompted by the family’s attorneys, who pointed out that the car had traveled less than a quarter of a mile in the 57 seconds it took the officer to make the decision. End of Stewart’s life – a distance that represents an average speed of 14 miles per hour.

The jury found the officer guilty here. The grand jury presented with the case — the kind of jury that would indict anyone for any reason — somehow found nothing criminal about the officer’s actions.

It is a miracle this case made its way to a jury trial. It was originally a federal case. The district court granted Officer Rhodes qualified immunity, even though the facts were still in dispute, and the court was aware that Rhodes was inconsistent at best in his testimony. Here’s a footnote to that effect:

Officer Rhodes testified that he lost his Taser at this point, id., but this contradicts his statement. [Ohio] BCI [Bureau of Criminal Investigations]…

It also noted that Rhodes did not activate his dash cam and belt mic, in violation of PD policy, even though “the dash camera can be activated from the belt microphone.”

And more lies:

Officer Catalano testified that the scale appeared to contain drug residue. But he did not mention any residue in his interviews with Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) agents.

And more:

Defendant Officer Rhodes asserted that the tinted lights on the Honda would have prevented Stewart from being blinded. But the Honda’s windows don’t look unusually dark in the BCI report photo.

There is more, but you get the point. Nevertheless, the district court held that the lying officer had no reason to believe that his actions were not reasonable under the circumstances (about which he repeatedly lied).

The Sixth Circuit reached the same conclusion as the Court of Appeals—the same court that found another Euclid PD officer so it could not extend qualified immunity. In this case, the court was skeptical of Rhodes’ actions and claims but could not say that it had clearly established (burn in hell, qualified immunity) that his deadly force was unreasonable under established case law. (vomit emoji)

However, it did do something useful: It said that state law claims were still valid under the Ohio Constitution. It sent the case back to the lower court. And that’s why Officer Rhodes is now on the hook for $4.4 million in wrongful death damages. Of course, the award is more likely to go down than up after the inevitable appeal, but it should send a clear message to both the city and its officers that rights violations aren’t the only punchline for police use of force. And it should also be clear that not every jury is willing to condone any action taken by someone wearing a badge and uniform.

Euclid needs to do some deep-cleaning. Its police department is more trouble than it’s worth.

Filed Under: 6th Circuit, Euclid, Louis Caleni, Luke Stewart, Matthew Rhodes, Ohio, Preemptive Stop, Qualified Immunity