Editorial: Northampton Police should release City Hall arrest records

  • In a screenshot taken from a video on Facebook, Northampton Police are seen arresting Eric Matlock, 33, outside City Hall on Aug. 7. Police said Matlock was creating a safety hazard sitting in front of the door. Police Chief Jody Kasper said this week that an internal review found officers had not violated department policy in their use of force during Matlock’s arrest.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

An internal review of the force used by Northampton police officers to arrest a man protesting on the steps of City Hall has found no violation of department policy, Chief Jody Kasper said this week. We see no reason to doubt that finding based on the information released so far — but we urge Kasper to release the full investigative file to address any lingering public concerns.

According to police, officers responded to City Hall shortly after lunchtime on Aug. 7 because of the report of a man blocking the building’s front doors. The two officers recognized him as a homeless man, Eric Matlock, and said they tried to persuade him to move to a place where he would not impede people coming and going from the building.

After Matlock refused to speak with the officers, they used their hands to try and move him. Matlock resisted, grabbing onto a handrail and refusing to budge, police allege. An officer pepper-sprayed him and, when Matlock continued to struggle, two more officers arrived to pry him from the railing and place him under arrest.

The officers’ use of force was “in line with the department’s policy,” Kasper said, based on a review of the incident by four levels of police officials — the officer-in-charge, a defensive tactics instructor, a training coordinator and the captain of operations. In this case, Kasper herself also reviewed the actions.

Matlock was holding a sign that said “Stop lying give me back what you stole” on one side and “Go around back” on the other. His partner, Pamela Juda, said the sign referred to an ongoing dispute with the state Department of Children and Families about the couple’s daughter and Matlock’s son.

Kasper said that Matlock could have continued his protest had he cooperated by not blocking the doorway. By refusing to move, she said, he created a safety issue police had to address.

Not everyone is persuaded. A video Juda made and posted online shows the latter part of the confrontation, after Matlock was pepper-sprayed. Some have questioned whether Matlock was creating a true safety issue and whether police used undue force, perhaps based on his race. Matlock has dark skin.

Matlock pleaded not guilty in Northampton District Court last month to charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault and battery on a police officer.

Dana Goldblatt, Matlock’s attorney, told Gazette staff writer Emily Cutts that her client wasn’t committing a crime when officers forcibly arrested him. “If the officers’ actions are within Jody Kasper’s policy, then Jody Kasper’s policy violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” Goldblatt said, referring to the constitutional prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure.

Jesse Adams, a Northampton defense attorney and former city councilor not involved in the case, has publicly asked whether Matlock’s race subjected him to unduly harsh treatment. Additionally, Adams questioned whether the internal review was truly impartial, based on Kasper’s statements to the Gazette — made before the internal review was complete — defending her officers.

“It shows that she had already made her decision that the arresting officers had acted appropriately and this pre-determination could have tainted the subsequent actual investigation,” Adams said in an email.

Kasper disputes that criticism and, based on her consistently responsible and public-spirited leadership of the city force, we would be surprised if she had done anything less than a thoughtful review of the available facts.

At the same time, though, the public square is still lighting up with questions and skepticism about this incident. Adams has called for an independent review by someone outside of the department, a good idea.

Another way to put public concerns to rest, in our view, is to release the written records on the case, including the officers’ use-of-force reports and official findings, so members of the public can assess the facts for themselves. The Gazette has submitted a formal request for those records.

The Northampton Police have a generally good track record of enforcing laws with reason and restraint. It is in the department’s interest, as well as the public’s, to let the sun shine on this case.