EUCLID, OH (WOIO)
The family of a man shot and killed by a Euclid police officer earlier this year has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the officers involved and the city of Euclid.
Luke Stewart, 23, was shot and killed in the city of Euclid by police officer Michael Rhodes on March 13, 2017.
On the day of the incident, officers responded to a report of a suspicious vehicle parked on South Lakeshore, near East 215th Street, at around 7 a.m. Police and defense attorneys for Stewart’s family agree that Stewart was sleeping when officers got to the car.
That’s where the stories diverge.
The suit states that officer Rhodes and another officer, Louis Catalani, approached the sleeping Stewart, “startled” him awake and tried to remove him from the car. The suit states that Stewart tried to drive away as a result of the officers’ “unexpected attack” and alleges Rhodes beat, tased and fatally shot him.
The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation looked into the incident, and stated in a report that Stewart was shot five times and that officer Rhodes also used his taser during the incident.
Rhodes said that he was in fear for his life during the brief struggle with Stewart. Stating in that BCI report, ‘”I couldn't get out of the vehicle because it was moving and I didn't want to get smashed between my vehicle and the passenger door, so I basically jumped into the vehicle. I pulled my legs into the vehicle with me to avoid being smushed between the two vehicles.’”
“Officer Rhodes never alleged that Luke attacked him in that car. Luke was unarmed in that car,” said Stewart family attorney, Sarah Gelsomino. “This lawsuit seeks to vindicate Luke’s death.”
Stewart’s family held a press conference Monday afternoon to discuss Stewart’s death and the civil rights lawsuit. Cleveland 19 asked Stewart’s mother, Mary Stewart, to respond to the assertion that officer Rhodes said he felt in fear for his life.
“If you’re afraid why would you get in [the car]? If you were afraid why would you get in you’d run in the opposite direction not into the vehicle,” said Mary Stewart.
“There’s a different way to police. There is a way to de-escalate the situation. These officers were completely unreasonable from the moment they arrived on the scene to investigate this call of a suspicious vehicle,” said Gelsomino.
The suit alleges that the two officers and the city of Euclid are responsible for Stewart’s wrongful death, that, “Defendants Rhodes and Catalani engaged in extreme and outrageous behavior…intended such conduct to inflict severe emotional distress upon Luke Stewart and his heirs and knew that their conduct would cause Luke Stewart and his family severe and serious emotional distress, which was of a nature that no reasonable person could be expected to endure.”
The suit also alleges there is a code of silence in the police department, and a culture that allows and encourages, among other things, excessive use of force.
“This city and this police department has not once taken this case seriously to investigate what happened and to hold the officers accountable for their behavior,” said Gelsomino. “These officers felt free to take this unjustified, outrageous action and shoot and kill Luke Stewart.”
Gelsomino referenced several other instances of alleged excessive use of force by the Euclid Police Department.
“It seems that not a week goes by without another person coming forward saying they were being mistreated by Euclid police officers,” said Gelsomino.
The suit is seeking both real and punitive damages, and a change of “policies, practices, and customs shown to encourage the use of excessive and unreasonable force and the extrajudicial shooting of civilians, particularly African-Americans, and ordering the institution of policies, procedures, and training for the Euclid Police Department to bring them into compliance with constitutional standards…”
A Cuyahoga county grand jury was presented the BCI investigation into the shooting and declined criminal charges against Rhodes.
Cleveland 19 reached out to the city of Euclid for a comment on the suit, but was told Euclid has no comment at this time.