On March 13th, 2017, Euclid police officer Matthew Rhodes killed Luke Stewart, an unarmed African American man, who was sleeping in his car when first approached.
A steady escalation of violence
Matthew Rhodes and his partner, Louis Catalani, were responding to a call from a Euclid resident who thought Stewart’s car was suspiciously parked on her block. Stewart had parked on the street after unsuccessfully attempting to get in touch with a nearby friend he could crash with.
After Catalani noticed what appeared to be a half-smoked marijuana joint and the top of a wine bottle in Stewart’s car, the officers made the contentious decision to arrest a sleeping man who had committed no crime. Rhodes and Catalani positioned their cars in front of and behind Stewart’s. Against department policy, neither officer turned on their red and blue lights, which would have initiated recording on their dash cams. Instead, they both opted to turn on their blinding “take down” lights and at least one window mounted flood lamp pointed at Stewart’s car.
Catalani approached first on the driver’s side while Rhodes moved up to the passenger door. Catalani knocked on the window, and Stewart woke up to a silhouetted stranger waving at him. Stewart waved back, sat up, and started his car, which is when Catalani and Rhodes decided that the use of force was appropriate and necessary. At no point did either identify themselves as a police officer.
Catalani opened the door and began trying to pull Stewart out by wrapping his arm around Stewart’s neck to get him in a “mandibular lock.” At the same time Rhodes opened the passenger side door and started attempting to push Stewart out of the car.
Stewart panicked and put the car in drive. Catalani disengaged when he saw that the driver’s side door was about to collide with Rhodes’ car. Rhodes decided that the proper thing to do was to jump all the way into the car as Luke drove off.
Rhodes made no attempt to verbally de-escalate the situation he found himself in with an unarmed man, and instead chose to attempt to subdue Stewart with a steady escalation of violence. First he began punching Stewart in the head. Next, he shot Stewart with his taser, but failed to disengage the safety. Rhodes then set about punching Stewart in the face with the front of the taser. When all that failed, Rhodes concluded that the only option left was to shoot Stewart until he stopped moving. The autopsy report showed three bullets in Stewart’s chest, one in his wrist, and a fatal shot to his neck.
Throughout this attack, Stewart’s car had only driven the length of a single block. Rhodes admits the car was in neutral at the time of the shooting and that the car was not moving forward. Despite this, Rhodes claimed that lethal force was necessary because he feared he would be ejected through the windshield or that Stewart might hit someone else.
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. What Chasing Justice has uncovered has the potential to lift that shield from Matthew Rhodes, as well as a significant portion of officers in the state.