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Ohio City’s Failure To Control Cops Results In Jury Awarding $4.4 Million To Family Of Man Killed By Officer

Ohio City’s Failure To Control Cops Results In Jury Awarding $4.4 Million To Family Of Man Killed By Officer

from the bad-cops-are-expensive dept

You may think you can take a hands-off approach to local law enforcement. But you’d be wrong. Trusting the police to police themselves has never worked out. If you don’t end up targeted by a DOJ investigation, all the work you didn’t do to oversee your police officers can (and will) be used against you in a court of law.

Welcome to Euclid, Ohio, a city of 50,000 that is home to a problematic police department. A couple of years ago, the Sixth Circuit Appeals Court stripped immunity from plainclothes officers who beat a black man after deliberately placing themselves into enough danger to justify the excessive force deployment.

It started with a pretextual stop in which the officers claimed Lamar Wright failed to deploy his turn signal. (The court noted no dash cam footage was available to verify this claim.) The officers’ body cameras, however, captured what happened next:

[Officer] Flagg then tried to pull Wright from the vehicle, but the latter had difficulty getting out. As noted, Wright had recently undergone surgery for diverticulitis, which required staples in his stomach and a colostomy bag attached to his abdomen. Though the officers apparently could not see the bag and staples, these items prevented Wright from easily moving from his seat. Wright placed his right hand on the center console of the car to better situate his torso to exit the car. By this point Williams had moved over to stand behind Flagg on the driver’s side. Williams responded to Wright’s hand movement by reaching around Flagg to pepper-spray Wright at point-blank range. Flagg simultaneously deployed his taser into Wright’s abdomen. The besieged detainee finally managed to exit the car with his hands up. He then was forced face down on the ground, where he explained to officers that he had a “shit bag” on. Officer Williams next handcuffed Wright while he was on the ground.

The appeals court said the officers’ actions weren’t justified by Wright’s actions nor anything else they had observed before they performed the stop. Going further, they allowed claims against the city of Euclid to move forward. The city was also potentially at fault, the court said, citing Euclid PD use of force training materials obtained by Wright — materials that included jokes about excessive force and graphics that made light of police brutality. Here’s what the Sixth Circuit said while allowing “failure to train” claims to move forward:

It is very troubling that the City of Euclid’s law-enforcement training included jokes about Rodney King—who was tased and beaten in one of the most infamous police encounters in history—and a cartoon with a message that twists the mission of police. The offensive statements and depictions in the training contradict the ethical duty of law enforcement officer “to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice.”

Given this background, it comes as no surprise another Euclid officer is on the hook for violating rights en route to wrongfully killing 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 climbed into 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 sparked by a wrongful death lawsuit that Stewart’s mother filed.

And here’s how Officer Rhodes got here: by ignoring pretty much everything about good police work in hopes of lucking into something more than a “guy sleeping in a car” community caretaker interaction.

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

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

Neither Rhodes nor Catalani identified himself as a police officer. They shined bright lights mounted on their police cars on Stewart’s car as they walked up to it.

When faced with the facts, Officer Rhodes chose to lie. He claimed that he shot Stewart because he was afraid he was trying to drive them both into a telephone pole which would have sent both of them flying through the windshield. On cross-examination, he admitted the car was in neutral when he shot Stewart, a confession prompted by the family’s attorneys, who pointed out the vehicle had traveled less than a quarter-mile in the 57 seconds it took for the officer to decide to end Stewart’s life — a distance that represented an average speed of 14 miles per hour.

The jury here found the officer at fault. The grand jury presented with this case — the kind of jury that will indict pretty much anyone for any reason — somehow didn’t find anything criminal about the officer’s actions.

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

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

It also pointed out that Rhodes did not activate his dash cam and belt mic in violation of PD policy, despite the fact that the “dash camera could be activated from the belt microphone.”

And more lying:

Officer Catalani also testified that there appeared to be drug residue on the scale. But he made no mention of any residue in his interview with agents from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI).

And more:

Defendant Officer Rhodes asserted, however, that the tinting on the Honda would have prevented the lights from blinding Stewart. But the Honda’s windows do not appear unusually dark in the BCI report photos.

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

The same conclusion was reached by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals — the same court that found another Euclid PD officer so out of line it could not extend qualified immunity. In this case, the court had it doubts about Rhodes’ actions and claims but could not say that it was 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 the state law claims under the Ohio Constitution were still valid. It sent the case back down 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, this award is more likely to come down than go up after the inevitable appeal, but it should send a clear message to both the city and the officers it employs that rights violations are not just police use-of-force punchlines. And it should also make it clear that not every jury is willing to excuse any actions taken by someone wearing a badge and a uniform.

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

Filed Under: 6th circuit, euclid, louis catalani, luke stewart, matthew rhodes, ohio, pretextual stop, qualified immunity