Family of man shot by cop: He was harmless

Holly Fournier, Candice Williams and Tom Greenwood
The Detroit News

Detroit — Family members of a man fatally shot by a Dearborn police officer called for justice Thursday during an emotional Christmas Eve press conference, as additional details emerged about Wednesday’s incident.

“Instead of wrapping presents with my baby, I have to bury my brother,” said 37-year-old Kimberly Matthews, sister of Kevin Matthews.

Matthews, 35, was fatally shot by a Dearborn police officer following a foot chase about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday on the 8000 block of Whitcomb on the city’s west side. He was unarmed but allegedly reached for the officer’s weapon during a struggle, according to a source with knowledge of the police investigation.

Police have interviewed a woman who says she saw the officer struggling with a man in a west-side backyard Wednesday.

But family members insisted Thursday that Matthews — slightly built and recovering from a broken arm sustained when he was hit by a car Thanksgiving Day — posed no threat and could not have scuffled with the officer.

Craig: Witness saw officer struggling with man he shot

“He was harmless, and they took him,” said the man’s brother, Lavell Matthews, 30. “They shot him like a dog and left him there.”

The family was accompanied at the press conference by the Rev. Charles E. Williams II at the Historic King Solomon Baptist Church. Frequent, audible sobs rang out in the small room.

“An officer took matters into his hands and gave so-called street justice to a brother, a friend, a community member,” Williams said.

Williams also said Matthews was known in the community to have paranoid schizophrenia and was prescribed medication. Neighborhood Detroit police officers knew of the man’s condition and often brought him to his mother’s home when he was found on the streets during an episode, Williams said.

Matthews was unemployed and supported by federal disability, family said. He split his time living with his mother and girlfriend.

“He was unarmed. He suffered from mental illness. He was well-known in the community,” Williams said. “This officer was just wrong, so we’re going to continue to fight for justice.”

The officer, who is white, was not identified by police. Matthews was black.

The officer, identified by a police source familiar with the investigation as a five-year veteran with no disciplinary record, spotted Matthews walking near the Dearborn/Detroit border. Matthews was wanted for a probation violation and had escaped from officers earlier Wednesday after committing a larceny in Dearborn, according to a Dearborn police press release.

Dearborn Police Chief Ronald Haddad confirmed the suspect was wanted for a misdemeanor warrant out of Redford Township.

“The officer approached the subject, a 36-year-old Detroit resident, and the subject fled on foot,” the Dearborn release said. “The officer chased the subject and encountered him several houses away, in Detroit, where a struggle ensued. Subsequently, the officer fired his department issued weapon; striking the subject.”

According to a police source, when the officer caught up with the fleeing man, he tried to subdue him with pepper spray.

“The witness said she saw a struggle,” Detroit Police Chief James Craig said. “We’ve talked to her, and will interview her again as the investigation moves forward.”

He said it’s unclear whether the woman corroborates the officer’s story.

Craig added that police have not yet interviewed the officer. “It’s still very early in the investigation,” he said.

An autopsy has been scheduled for Friday, according to the Wayne County Medical Examiner’s Office.

The Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality called Thursday for the suspension of the officer who shot Matthews.

“For the sake of Kevin’s family, and for the peace and safety of our community, we believe suspension of the officer is necessary until the facts are known,” coalition spokesman Ken Reed said in a statement. “We are hopeful that Chief Haddad will do the right thing in this matter, and (we) will continue to conduct our own investigation as well to ensure that justice is served.”

Haddad said Wednesday: “I stand behind the officer, and we’re going to have a full investigation with Detroit police.”

Reed also attended Thursday’s press conference, telling The Detroit News eight shots were fired at Matthews. Reed also said he saw two sets of tire tracks in the grass late Wednesday near the scene, leading him to question the official account of a single officer involved in a foot chase.

“They jumped the curb chasing him, that’s what it appeared to me,” he said. “Two cars.”

Wednesday’s chase that ended in Matthews’ death was not his first encounter with Dearborn police, Reed said.

“His family said Dearborn chased him the night before,” Reed said. “He eluded them.”

But family members insisted it wasn’t like Matthews to run from law enforcement. The man had previous, minor run-ins with police but was willing to work with officers, they said.

The incident started at 12:27 p.m. Wednesday, when the officer radioed in to Dearborn police dispatch: “Approaching one on foot, Tireman and Whitcomb,” according to dispatch audio.

Three minutes later, the officer, breathing heavily, reported: “Shots fired,” before adding, “I’m OK ... we have a suspect with a gunshot wound.”

When more police arrived at the scene, a home in the 8000 block of Whitcomb, the officer was covered in mud, his uniform was ripped, and the belt holding his service pistol was loosened, Craig said.

A Detroit Police homicide task force that includes Michigan State Police is investigating.

Craig told reporters at the scene Wednesday: “This suspect has been a crime problem in this area. Local businesses were familiar with him.”

Detroit Police Commissioner Ricardo Moore criticized Craig’s comments.

“Because of ... Craig’s biased statement against the deceased suspect, this situation would warrant an independent investigation from the Michigan State Police, solely,” he said. “Craig should be trying to give the public trust in this investigation, as opposed to creating tension between the community and the police.”

Said Craig: “I disagree. My saying there was a struggle doesn’t mean the suspect went for the officer’s gun. I didn’t say that. That’s something that will be determined during this investigation.”

Sobbing family members on Thursday praised Matthews’ character.

“I just want to say my son was a good son,” said Valerie Johnson, 56. “He was a good brother. He didn’t hurt nobody.”

Kimberly Matthews spoke tearfully about her brother. “He made everybody laugh,” she said. “He made everybody feel special.”

Staff Writers Mark Hicks and Candice Williams contributed.