City Hall arrest raises use-of-force issues in Northampton

  • Eric Matlock, 33, standing next to his attorney Dana Goldblatt, pleaded not guilty in Northampton District Court Tuesday morning, Aug. 8, 2017. Matlock was arraigned on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault and battery on a police officer.  —GAZETTE STAFF/EMILY CUTTS

@ecutts_HG
Published: 8/8/2017 6:47:31 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The defense attorney for a Northampton man arrested outside of City Hall Monday said her client was peacefully protesting. Northampton Police said he was creating a safety hazard.

Now the matter is in front of a Northampton judge as Eric Matlock, 33, pleaded not guilty in Northampton District Court Tuesday to charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and assault and battery on a police office.

“Mr. Matlock was sitting peacefully on the steps outside of City Hall when four officers used violent force to remove him,” defense attorney Dana Goldblatt said in an email to the Gazette. “By prosecuting Mr. Matlock, the District Attorney participates in the officers’ violence.”

Northampton Police Chief Jody Kasper responded that the incident was a matter of a man blocking the door to a public building.

“The officers involved politely asked him to move and he refused,” Kasper wrote in an email. “He could have easily continued his protest by following officers’ requests to move out of the way and by not obstructing access to the building. He chose not to move and instead actively resisted arrest by grabbing onto the railing pole.”

More than two dozen people packed the courtroom in support of a Matlock, who was arrested Monday around 12:48 p.m. after police received a call of a man blocking the entrance to City Hall. Matlock was held on $500 bail until around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday when he was able to post the money.

In court, Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Lori Odierna requested that the bail remain the same, citing a record that included previous violations of probation and failures to comply with court orders.

Goldblatt asked that bail be reduced to $100, adding that Matlock was homeless. Before Goldblatt was able to elaborate further, Judge W. Michael Goggins adopted her recommendation.

“This entire situation could have been avoided had the defendant simply complied with the officers’ verbal request to relocate his protest and stop blocking the public’s access to City Hall,” First Assistant Northwestern District Attorney Steven Gagne said in a statement. “In terms of what happened next, and the criminal charges that followed, we will handle this case in the normal course.”

Matlock’s next court appearance is scheduled for Sept. 18.

Police called to City Hall

According to court documents, when police responded to the call they recognized Matlock from previous interactions and watched as a woman tried unsuccessfully to enter the building through the door Matlock was allegedly blocking.

At the time of the incident, police said Matlock was holding a sign that read “Stop lying give me back what you stole. -Eric Matlock.” The opposite side of the sign read, “Go around back.”

His partner Pamela Juda said Monday evening that Matlock’s sign referred to an ongoing struggle with the Department of Children and Families for the couple’s daughter and Matlock’s son.

Juda said it wasn’t the first time Matlock has chosen to go and sit at City Hall. Two weeks prior, she said she and Matlock, along with about eight others, sat in a “peaceful quiet protest” in front of the door.

Officers told Matlock he could sit on the steps of City Hall with his sign but he could not block the door because he was creating a safety issue by blocking the entry and exit to the public building, according to a report written by Officer Brent Dzialo.

“When Matlock refused to speak to us and move, I told him that we were going to move him to the side to resolve the existing safety issue,” Dzialo wrote.

As Dzialo grabbed Matlock’s left wrist and Officer Clay Delano attempted to grab his right wrist, Matlock allegedly reacted by swinging at Delano and flailing his body, according to Dzialo’s report. Matlock then pulled away and crawled to the metal railing which he wrapped his body around. As officers attempted to remove Matlock from the pole, Matlock allegedly swung his right arm and hit Dzialo’s left forearm, the officer wrote.

Use of pepper-spray

Delano’s and Dzialo’s reports differ on what exactly Matlock was doing at the moment he was pepper-sprayed.

In Dzialo’s report he states that Matlock was told if he did not let got of the metal railing he would be pepper-sprayed. Matlock continued to cling to the pole, according to the report.

“I subsequently administered a one second burst of OC spray to Matlock’s facial area and it did not have its full desired effect as Matlock still remained wrapped around the pole,” Dzialo wrote.

Delano states that Matlock was pepper-sprayed as he continued to struggle with Dzialo, who had control of his left arm while Delano secured his right arm and attempted to put his wrist behind his back to handcuff him, according to Delano’s report.

In a video of a portion of the incident, taken by Juda, Matlock can be heard coughing and saying “I’m not spitting, I’m trying to breathe (expletive).”

After he was pepper-sprayed, additional officers arrived on scene and it took three officers roughly 30 seconds to remove him from the railing and escort him to a cruiser. After using the eyewash unit at the station, Matlock cooperated and complied with police booking procedure and “relayed that his intentions were not to get arrested but to be heard” on issues relating to a dispute with DCF, Officer Michael McLaughlin wrote in his report.

Before Matlock was arraigned Tuesday morning, a group of about two dozen people prepared and held signs reading “I Support Eric Matlock” but were told they could not bring them into the courtroom.

People who showed up to support Matlock and Juda declined to comment following the hearing. Around 10 people, including Juda, met the night before to discuss the situation.

Following the arraignment, Goldblatt said the family appreciates the support.

Parallels seen

Attorney Jesse Adams, who does not represent Matlock, said the use of force is an issue and that it would be reasonable to have an impartial review of the arrest and use of force.

“It’s an arrest, it’s an unarmed black man and it’s worth reviewing whether or not the proper procedures were used,” Adams said. “I hope there is an impartial review of the use of force ... and that in Northampton, we are not afraid to scrutinize our own government and that no department is sacrosanct.”

The department requires officers to complete use-of-force forms any time physical force is sued. The forms are reviewed at four levels, a process in which, Kasper wrote, she has total confidence.

The director of the Racial Justice Program at the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Rahsaan Hall, said in a statement the video and reports of Matlock’s arrest raise concerns about use of force and policies for engaging people involved in what appear to be peaceful demonstrations.

“Incidents like this underscore the need for greater transparency and accountability measures like body-worn cameras,” Hall said. “With a strong policy that protects the privacy rights of civilians, body-worn cameras can help ensure the free speech and due process rights of Northampton residents are protected.”

Adams said the case had parallels to the March 2013 arrest of an Amherst man outside of a Northampton bar. Jonas Correia’s arrest was captured on video by a woman outside the former Tully O’Reilly’s at the corner of Pearl and Pleasant streets on March 31, 2013, and posted to YouTube under the title “Northampton Massachusetts Police Brutality.”

The video footage shows two officers bringing Correia to the ground outside the bar and placing him in restraints after a third officer discharged pepper spray in his face. Criminal charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest against Correia were eventually dropped.

Kasper acknowledged that there were some “obvious parallels” in the two cases, including that it involved police use of force and that the subject was a person of color. But she stated that each case is looked at individually.

The city insurance provider agreed to pay Correia $52,500 as part of an out-of-court settlement on the allegations that city police officers used excessive force and unlawfully arrested him.

Shortly after the settlement, all patrol staff and first line supervisors attended an eight-hour training on implicit bias, culture, and race relations, Kasper said. The department is also in the midst of sending all of its sworn staff, including all administrators, to a nationally recognized course titled Fair and Impartial Policing.

A chief’s review

Kasper wrote that she reviewed the video that was released and observed Matlock refusing to let go of the pole. However, she said she did not see officers yelling, striking or sitting on him nor did they have their batons or firearms out.

“It is equally as important to review what the officers did not do in addition to what they did do,” Kasper wrote. “It would be premature of me, or of anyone else contemplating this case, to make any assumptions or statements about the level of force that was used.”

The department has a review process in place which is currently underway in the case, according to Kasper.

“These are exceptional officers who were called to a scene and put into a difficult situation dealing with an actively resistant subject, an agitated person recording them, and some other people on the street questioning their actions,” Kasper wrote.

“They acted professionally and competently while taking this person into custody. It may be difficult for anyone to watch police officers make an arrest when any level of force is used,” she continued. “However, one’s dislike or lack of understanding of police use of force shouldn’t cloud one’s judgment about whether the force was appropriate or not appropriate.”

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




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