Police: Use of force in Northampton City Hall arrest within policy

  • In screenshots taken from a video on Facebook, Northampton police are seen arresting Eric Matlock, 33, outside City Hall Aug. 7. VIA FACEBOOK

  • In screenshots taken from a video on Facebook, Northampton Police are seen arresting Eric Matlock, 33, outside of City Hall Monday afternoon, Aug. 7, 2017. Police said Matlock was creating a safety hazard sitting in front of the door. Matlock's partner Pamela Juda said he was silently protesting. VIA FACEBOOK

Thursday, September 21, 2017

NORTHAMPTON — The force officers used to arrest a man protesting an ongoing struggle with the Department of Children and Families outside City Hall last month was within the guidelines of Police Department policy, Police Chief Jody Kasper has concluded.

An internal review of the incident found that the actions of the four officers who arrested Eric Matlock were “all in line with the department’s policy,” Kasper said.

Northampton Police were called to City Hall on Aug. 7 shortly before 1 p.m. for a report of a man blocking the front doors to the building. When police arrived, they recognized him as a homeless man, Eric Matlock. Police tried to speak with Matlock but he refused to speak with officers and the interaction turned physical. A video of part of the incident was posted on Facebook. 

Officers attempted to use their hands to remove him from in front of the doors because he was creating a safety issue, according to police reports. Officers pepper-sprayed Matlock once and physically pried him from a handrail he was gripping. 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. He is being represented by attorney Dana Goldblatt.

“I know that there is some concern out there that Mr. Matlock may have not been blocking the door simply based on the fact of when the video recording began,” Kasper said. “This is false. I am completely confident he was blocking the door.”

Officers’ statements, witness statements and a sign Matlock was holding that stated “Go around back” made clear his intent, Kasper said.

“It was unfortunate he decided not to comply with the request,” Kasper said. “Had he simply moved, he would have been able to continue his protest.”

All four officers involved in the arrest filed “use of force” reports. The department requires the reports any time an officer uses physical force, such as pepper spray, a wrist lock or non-lethal projectiles.

The forms are reviewed by four levels of police personnel — the officer-in-charge, a defensive tactics instructor, a training coordinator and the captain of operations. In this case, Kasper also reviewed the reports.

“We pay extremely close attention to any force that is used,” the chief said.

Goldblatt said Matlock wasn’t committing a crime when the “officers grabbed him and tried to drag him away.”

“If the officers actions are within Jody Kasper’s policy then Jody Kasper’s policy violates the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution,” she said.

No complying with officers orders or not responding to police is not a crime, Goldblatt explained.

“You are allowed to say no to the police and you are allowed to ignore the police because we don’t live in a police state,” she said. “There is no law he was breaking so the police don’t have the authority to physically remove him. You have to be committing a crime for the police to arrest you and drag you away.”

Following Matlock’s arrest, Northampton defense attorney Jesse Adams, who does not represent Matlock, said he hoped there was an impartial review of the use of force by someone outside the department.

“With all due respect to the NPD and Chief Kasper, I question the impartiality of the internal investigation into the use of force in the arrest of Eric Matlock,” Adams wrote in an email Monday.

“The chief stated in a Gazette interview right after the arrest and before the review of the use of force that the officers ‘acted professionally and competently while taking this person into custody.’”

The statement, Adams stresses, was made prior to any review of the use of force.

“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 wrote.

Kasper responded that her earlier statement was made based on her initial review of the video and the information available at that point. She said at the time she made clear that she and the department would make a final determination only after a full review.

“I will respectfully disagree with any belief that our system was not done fairly,” Kasper said.

Following a thorough review including officers’ reports, witness statements and conversations with the officers involved, Kasper said, “without a doubt this was a case of force used within our policy.” Whether people felt comfortable with the use of force was another question, she said.

There is no known recording of the incident from the moment police arrived. A nearly 4-minute-long video posted on Facebook of the incident by Matlock’s partner Pamela Juda picks up the incident after Matlock was pepper-sprayed. Northampton police do not wear body cameras.

“Mr. Matlock asserts that he was peacefully protesting a government act in a public place,” Adams wrote.

Referring to Matlock’s race, Adams continued, “The real question remains: would a middle-aged white person with a sign denouncing Donald Trump have been treated the same (as) this young, African-American man?”

 Emily Cutts can be reached at ecutts@gazettenet.com.