Northampton police rapped over violent arrest

By ALEXANDER MACDOUGALL

Staff Writer

Published: 08-10-2023 7:16 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A Northampton attorney is pursuing damages against the city and a potential lawsuit against the Northampton Police Department on behalf of a Holyoke woman who was arrested and pepper-sprayed by police in April after being pulled over for a broken headlight.

The case prompted an internal review by an outside firm that found no wrongdoing and de-escalation training for the officer involved. Additionally, all criminal charges were dropped by the Northwestern district attorney’s office in the wake of the incident.

Marisol Driouech, 60, was working as a DoorDash delivery driver and had pulled out of the McDonald’s on King Street late at night on April 4 when she was stopped farther down the street by Northampton Police Officer John Sellew.

According to police dashcam footage shared with the Gazette, Sellew asks her why she failed to stop for him. Driouech, a native Spanish speaker, responds that she does not understand. Sellew then demands that Driouech present her license and registration.

Sellew calls for backup as Driouech then questions whether or not Sellew is actually a police officer. Sellew opens the car door and forcibly pulls Driouech out of the vehicle as she screams, first in Spanish, telling Sellew not to touch her, before screaming in English for someone to help her as Sellew restrains her on the ground. During the physical encounter, Driouech had grabbed Sellew’s police baton.

A second Northampton officer, Jonathan Bartlett, arrives on the scene and joins Sellew in restraining her on the ground while also administering pepper spray. Driouech can be heard asking “why do you do that?”

Driouech was charged with five counts of assault and battery on a police officer, attempting to disarm a police officer, resisting arrest, refusal to self-identify and the headlight violation. The Northwestern district attorney’s office dismissed all charges with the exception of the headlight violation, which was subject to a fine.

Driouech is being represented by Dana Goldblatt, a Northampton criminal defense attorney who has represented other clients in cases against the NPD.

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“Marisol is entitled to be compensated for her injuries, and she’s going to ask to be compensated,” Goldblatt said Thursday. “If the city doesn’t compensate her, then she will ask the court to make the city compensate her.”

Though the incident in question happened in April, Goldblatt said it was only recently that Driouech had reached out to her for representation. The dashcam footage was first published online Wednesday by The Shoestring.

“People who are assaulted by police do not necessarily immediately think of a lawsuit because they believe that what’s happened to them can be sort of fixed by some kind of internal review,” Goldblatt said. “That can cause a lot of delay if they’re waiting for these processes.”

Before a lawsuit can proceed, the city must be presented with the claim by Goldblatt, seeking compensation for her client for the experience she went through. The city has six months to respond to a claim before a lawsuit can be filed. Goldblatt said she expects to present an initial claim to the city within the next two weeks.

Mayor, policechief respond

In a statement, Northampton Mayor Gina-Louise Sciarra criticized Sellew’s conduct during the stop and said the situation could have been handled better.

“While an internal and an outside independent investigation found no violations in the April 4 stop, it is clear to me that a slower, more considered interaction and more effective communication could have avoided the escalation of the situation,” Sciarra said. “I was very concerned to see the situation escalate to such a degree on the video and strongly disagree with how the officer handled it.”

Sellew can be heard on the video swearing at Drouiech, saying “Get out of your fing vehicle.”

Sciarra also thanked Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper for taking quick action to review and investigate the incident, and said she was grateful that the stop was recorded for visual review and documentation.

She said she would not comment further at this time, due to the threatened litigation.

Goldblatt said that despite the mayor’s remarks, the city had increased police budgets during Sciarra’s administration. For fiscal year 2024, the city increased its police budget by $360,000 for the hiring of three new student officers, a 5% increase from the previous fiscal year, noting the department had a staffing shortage of full-time officers.

“It’s nice to be distressed, but you have to stop hiring people to do the thing that distresses you,” said Goldblatt. “They just keep giving more and more money to the police to hire more and more officers.”

Kasper said in a statement to the Gazette that Sellew was assigned to training on verbal de-escalation following the incident.

“Our community expects and deserves that we meet high professional standards. In this case, we did not meet those standards,” Kasper said. “Officer Sellew could have and should have done a better job handling this matter.”

Kasper said an internal review, conducted in June by Comprehensive Investigations and Consulting LLC, cleared officers Sellew and Bartlett of any wrongdoing.

“In light of all of these factors, Officer Sellew’s and Officer Bartlett’s actions and the amount of force they used, was reasonable and proportionate considering the totality of the circumstances that they faced on that evening,” the review concluded.

Goldblatt said the problem with the case was not the way Sellew handled the stop, but the way policing is done in general, and the city should not expand its police force.

“Policing is a violent, often unconstitutional process. This is what it looks like,” she said. “The problem here is that we keep hiring people to beat other people, and we should stop that.”

Goldblatt is also currently suing the city on behalf of another client, Eric Matlock, who was pepper-sprayed by police in 2017.

Alexander MacDougall can be reached at amacdougall@gazettenet.com.

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