Luke Stewart was sleeping in his car, then cops killed him

On March 13, 2017, officer Matthew Rhodes of the Euclid Police Department in Ohio killed Luke Stewart, an unarmed African-American man who was sleeping in his car when Rhodes and his partner Louis Catalani first approached. Without announcing themselves as police officers or turning on their dashcams, Catalani and Rhodes aggressively tried to wrestle Stewart out of the car, escalating the situation with every passing second as Stewart panicked and put his car in drive. Within minutes, Stewart was on the ground, dead, with three bullets in his chest, one in his wrist, and a fatal shot to his neck. Under the shield of qualified immunity, Rhodes has avoided both a grand jury indictment and a judgement against him in a wrongful death suit filed by Stewart’s family.

In the first installment of the mini-documentary series State of Injustice, executive produced by Black Lives Matter Cleveland, filmmakers Roger Glenn Hill and Brian “BZ” Douglas investigate the killing of Luke Stewart and the fight to hold the Euclid PD accountable for their actions. State of Injustice is a documentary series showcasing the systemic failures of Ohio law enforcement across the state. With permission from the filmmakers, TRNN is honored to share the initial three-episode season, which explores police abuse in the city of Euclid, Ohio, with our audience.


Transcript

Chief Scott Meyer:    Last Monday, March 13, the Euclid Police Department was involved in an officer involved shooting. This is an ongoing investigation being conducted by an outside independent agency. This thorough investigation will take time. All inquiries should be directed to the agency conducting this investigation, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification. While this independent investigation is ongoing, the men and women of the Euclid Police Department will continue to serve and protect the residents and visitors of the city of Euclid, just as we have always done and will continue to do. Thank you.

Speaker 1:    All right. If we could maybe just discuss the incident.

Officer Catalani:    Sure.

Speaker 1:    Describe how you got the call, what led you to that call, what you heard, what you observed. All that good stuff.

Officer Catalani:    Okay.

Speaker 1:    And at the end, if we have some follow up questions, we’ll ask you.

Officer Catalani:    Okay. I was dispatched to a suspicious vehicle call. The information that the dispatcher gave to me was a resident had called, said she observed a vehicle that had been idling for like 20 minutes in front of her house. I think the wording she used was “didn’t belong there”. I told Officer Rhodes over the air, “We’re going to end up pulling this guy out of the car”.

Officer Rhodes:    He told me via radio, that “once you get here, we’re going to end up pulling him out”. When he said that I knew that he needed another vehicle, another officer there so that he could pull this male out because some sort of crime was being committed or some investigation needed to be done further into it. It wasn’t one of these, “Okay, See you later, have a good day”. Something further was going to happen.

Kareem Hinton:    My name is Kareem Hinton. I’m one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Cleveland. I’m about to listen to some of the recordings from the BCI investigation regarding the murder of Luke Stewart.

Officer Catalani:    As Officer Rhodes is approaching, I knocked on the window, just gave him three knocks. As soon as I knocked on the window, he woke up. I wanted to grab him by the head, and that was my goal. If I could get the head out, I can get him out.

Kareem Hinton:    Mm.

Officer Catalani:    I got him, was a headlock. It wasn’t on his throat. I was under his mandible, that jaw. I think they call it the mandibular angle pressure point or whatever it is, but it’s very unpleasant to have that happen. As me and him were struggling, the cars started moving .

Speaker 2:    Shot in the chest and the neck. Unresponsive, doing CPR and [inaudible].

Speaker 3:    ….driving?

Speaker 2:    Yeah. Yeah. He was driving.

Speaker 4:    I found out about this on the news. I was watching the news, about 9:00. News kept coming across the screen, “Police involved shooting in Euclid”. I seen my brother’s car. I tried calling him, no answers, so I tried calling around to all the local hospitals. They didn’t have him in none of the local hospitals.

So at this point I’m like, okay, I have to go up to the police department to find out what’s going on. I asked the lady that was sitting behind the desk, I say, “I’m here about the incident that’s going on outside”. The lady says to me, “What incident?” I say, “The incident that your officers are literally walking to from here”. So at this point, I go home. I’m like, Mom, you know, something’s not right. I can’t get a hold of Luke. I’ve called around at every hospital. They say they don’t have him. They don’t even have a John DOE, because I was asking that question as well. So at this point, me and my mom and my two cousins, we go back up to Euclid Police Department. My mom just go in and just was like, “Y’all killed my son.”

Speaker 5:    Luke was sleeping. The officers acknowledged that their actions would’ve startled him when they woke him up and caused some confusion. They didn’t announce themselves as police officers. All that Catalani did was knock on the window [sound of three knocks on a hard surface] and wave. And then Luke woke up and Catalani immediately opened the door and started to try to pull Luke out of the car. At the same time, Officer Rhodes got in the passenger’s side seat of the car, put himself inside the car with his knees on the passenger’s seat and started to push. They’re doing a push-pull thing to try to remove him from the car. Again, Luke had not committed any crime.

    Rhodes’ inability to deal with this kind of a situation that police officers confront all the time, removing person from the car, encountering a person asleep in the car. That’s not a unique situation in policing, but his complete inability to deal with the situation in a legal way? It exposes the problems within Euclid’s training because Euclid did not have any training in how to remove a person from the car. Euclid certainly didn’t train on how to jump into the car. None of that was covered by the Euclid Police Department’s training. And instead, what was covered just months before Rhodes had killed Luke Stewart, was a defensive tactics training where they made light of the use of force against people, and just joked about beating people up.

Speaker 4:    Who puts humor in excessive forced training? That’s something you take seriously. You are out here dealing with people. This is something close to military training. I’ve been to the military. They didn’t have no humor in nothing they trained us to do. So to say that was humor, I feel like that was just basically telling your officers to go out there and be reckless.

Speaker 5:    That is the mentality that Rhodes had when he approached Luke Stewart on the morning that he killed him.

Speaker 1:    And are you saying anything to him?

Officer Rhodes:    When I initially jumped in the vehicle, I remember telling him to stop. And then after that, after we got past car 20, I was yelling at him, but I have no idea what was coming out of my mouth. I tried striking him with my fist. It didn’t do anything, so then I deployed the taser. Again, initially it had some effect and then the safety got turned on. I took out my duty weapon. I shot him twice in the chest.

    After the first two rounds went into his chest, he looked at me, said, “Nah, nigga”, swung at me again. I avoided the swing and I came up at a higher angle, at what I thought was a downward angle and I fired again. And I saw that round go into his neck.

    When that round went into his neck, I could see he kind of loosened up. It definitely had an effect. He tried to say something, but no words came out. He did like a half swing, but there was not much there. And then he just slowly started losing body function and he was no longer doing anything. He was just slowly relaxing and slipping over.

Kareem Hinton:    Man… yeah, I’m done. I can’t…I mean, this guy it’s like he’s telling a fucking lullaby or something.

Speaker 4:    The type of gunshot wounds that Luke sustained, they took him to Euclid Hospital. Euclid Hospital couldn’t help him. Anybody knows that. We got two trauma centers here. Metro University. The type of gunshot wounds he had, he wasn’t supposed to go there. So what makes me also think they broke protocol? I think my brother was dead on the scene and they moved his body. That’s what I honestly feel.

Speaker 1:    The person who was shot. Was he coherent? Did he say anything?

Speaker 6:    The person who was shot?

Speaker 1:    Yeah.

Speaker 6:    He was lifeless when we arrived on the scene.

Speaker 1:    I know you’re not a doctor and I’m not a doctor, is it fair to say that he was dead?

Speaker 6:    Yes. He was not breathing. And he had electrical activity in his heart, but no pulse.

Speaker 1:    Okay. Is that common?

Speaker 6:    Yes.

Speaker 1:    Okay.

Speaker 7:    Did you consciously go through your use of force continuum or was this training and tradition?

Officer Rhodes:    It was just do it. I wasn’t thinking to myself of the use of force continuum. Obviously us telling [him to stop] didn’t work. I used my hands. They didn’t work. I used the taser. It didn’t work. It just…

Speaker 7:    …was a natural progression.

Officer Rhodes:    Exactly.

Speaker 1:    Could you tell, did he have a seatbelt on?

Officer Rhodes:    He did not have a seatbelt on.

Speaker 1:    Do you believe your actions were consistent with your training?

Officer Rhodes:    I do.

Speaker 5:    There was no reason for any of this interaction, particularly not any kind of use of force on him in that moment when he had just woken up. They never announced themselves as police officers. There were no red and blue lights on the cars. They had their take down lights on, so they were blinding lights shining in Luke’s face and men attacking him from both sides of the car as soon as he woke up,

Speaker 1:    Did you put any lights on the vehicle or..

Officer Rhodes:    I activated my take down lights, the white lights from my light bar.

Speaker 1:    Okay.

Officer Rhodes:    And then I had my headlights on as well, but I didn’t activate my emergency lights, the red or blue lights.

Speaker 1:    Okay.

Speaker 4:    From my understanding ,the red and blue lights activate the dash cams. So why didn’t you guys even have your red, and blue lights on so he can even acknowledge who you were? What was the plan? What was the motive? That’s a part of accountability, right? That’s a big part of it right there for me. Cause even if we would’ve had footage to see what happened, we don’t know nothing but what you are telling us.

Speaker 1:    Did the other officer have any lights on?

Officer Rhodes:    Same thing. He had his headlights on and his take down light from his light bar. And I believe he had a spotlight. I think he had a spotlight on the car, too.

Speaker 1:    Okay. You said you turned down your take down lights and the spotlight…

Officer Rhodes:    Uh-huh.

Speaker 1:    If we could just describe maybe what a take down light is and what your spotlight is.

Officer Catalani:    The spotlight handle that operates a beam of light that sits on the pillar of the car designed to just shoot in, illuminate what you’re looking at. Take down lights, we have them centered on the light bar, LED lights, same theory, just shoot white light forward. Aids in illuminating what you’re walking up to and masking your approach on a traffic stop.

Kareem Hinton:    These officers were not wearing the usual police uniform, so they didn’t have the shiny badge. They had the fatigue type clothing. They had the skull cap that may have possessed some type of badge or lettering that identified them as law enforcement, but at nighttime thread and needle work are not shiny like an actual badge. To top it off, waking somebody up into a potentially dangerous situation, they might not notice all that stuff.

Speaker 5:    Both of the officers failed to turn on their dash cams. Catalani claims he forgot. Rhodes actually considered turning it on and decided not to. Rhodes’s car was directly in front of Luke’s car, so had he followed the policy of the police department and turned on his dash cam, we would have video of this, but he didn’t. He decided not to turn it on. And that is actually something that was noted by the police department, that there was a failure to comply with that policy, but there was no discipline. Even for that.

Speaker 4:    It’s been hard. It’s been hard. Luke’s birthday is Sunday. The day Luke was killed was my daughter’s birthday. It took a toll on my mom. My mom’s health has been going down, but she’s still trying for the most part. His kids miss him. They talk about him, just say things like, oh, I wish the police didn’t kill my dad.

    That was my little brother, me and my oldest brother. We both miss him to death. If we could reverse the hands of time, we definitely would, but right now, at this point, we just want some type of justice. At the end of the day, we don’t want this to happen to another family because at the rate it’s going, it’s going to happen.

Speaker 1:    This question for Chief Meyer. As far as the cameras, the dash cams, the body cams that Euclid Police uses, my understanding is that the dash cams only come on when the overhead lights are on. Is that correct?

Chief Scott Meyer:    That is when they’ll automatically come on or should automatically come on .

Speaker 1:    Now with the body cams, is it up to the officer to turn it on? What is the rule for them to turn the body cams on?

Chief Scott Meyer:    We don’t issue body cams. So we have a group of officers, if they want to purchase their own, they’re permitted to purchase their own.

Speaker 1:    Okay.

Chief Scott Meyer:    Since it’s not a mandatory wear, we don’t provide them, there is a lot of discretion as to when they turn those on and when they’re not turned on. Again, they’re voluntary and they’re paid for by the individual officers.

Speaker 1:    So we don’t have any officers with body cams, but we do have…

Chief Scott Meyer:    Well, we do.

Speaker 1:    Right.

Chief Scott Meyer:    We do have officers with body cams. Yes.

Speaker 1:    So you say, but it’s up to them when they want to turn it on or turn it off.

Chief Scott Meyer:    It’s even up to them if they’re wearing them or not wearing them, because we do not provide them.

Speaker 1:    Okay. Okay.

Roger Glenn Hill

Roger Glenn Hill is a photographer, documentarian, and filmmaker based in Cleveland, Ohio. In addition to the mini-documentary series State of Injustice, his titles include the award-winning narrative feature Huckleberry (Best Narrative Film 2019 QFLIX) and the documentary Flying Paper (Jury Prize 2015 Baghdad International Film Festival), among others.

Brian Douglas

Brian “BZ” Douglas is an independent journalist based in Cleveland, Ohio, covering corruption in Cleveland politics and abuse by police. For the past three years, he has hosted "BZ Listening," an eclectic podcast featuring journalists, musicians, activists, filmmakers, and more.