A district judge today dismissed both charges against a Pittsburgh police sergeant accused of using an unnecessary amount of force on an intoxicated teenager at a WPIAL playoff game at Heinz Field in November.
Stephen Matakovich was charged with simple assault and official oppression for his actions against then 19-year-old Gabriel Despres. District Judge Robert Ravenstahl dismissed both charges after a preliminary hearing that lasted about an hour and a half.
Police had said — and Mr. Despres admitted in testimony — that Mr. Despres came to Heinz Field drunk the night of Nov. 28 during the WPIAL playoffs. When he tried to gain entrance into the stadium, security staff from Landmark refused to let him in because he was intoxicated.
Sgt. Matakovich was called to Gate 5 while he was on the field during the Aliquippa-South Fayette football game. A Heinz Field security camera video that prosecutors played during the hearing showed what happened after the sergeant arrived.
Mr. Despres appears to be walking away when a Landmark employee calls him back to talk with Sgt. Matakovich, who had just arrived on scene.
Sgt. Matakovich said that he immediately started telling Mr. Despres to leave as Landmark staff had several times. In the video Mr. Despres starts walking away again, but then turns around to face the sergeant. Then Sgt. Matakovich takes several steps toward Mr. Despres and shoves him with two hands to the ground. Mr. Despres starts getting back to his feet, but Sgt. Matakovich pushes him back down, punches him in the face and strikes him several more times.
Defense attorney Blaine Jones notes that Mr. Despres places his hands in and out of his pockets several times during the encounter before the sergeant initiates contact. He also says that Mr. Despres clenched his fist just before Sgt. Matakovich shoved him, although the view is blocked in the video.
The video did not have audio, but Mr. Despres said that he did not say anything threatening to the officer. Pittsburgh police Lt. Victor Joseph said he interviewed a Landmark employee who was at the scene who said that Mr. Despres did not look or sound aggressive and did not take a fighting stance.
Prosecutors brought in Pittsburgh police use-of-force instructor David Wright to examine the video. Officer Wright said that in his opinion “that the use of force was not reasonable.”
“Primarily based on the body language I’m viewing I don’t see a very aggressive stance,” Officer Wright said of Mr. Despres.
After Mr. Despres was pushed to the ground, the video shows that he began to get back up and put his arm in the air in what Officer Wright called “self-preservation.” He said it was an innate, subconscious response after being shoved.
“As I watch the video, I see no resistance,” he said. “I don’t see resistance. Without resistance, there should be no force.”
Sgt. Matakovich, testifying in his own defense, said that although he respected the opinion of Officer Wright, the officer did not know all of the circumstances.
The sergeant said that Mr. Despres “was extremely agitated before I got there.” He said that Mr. Despres told him, “I know my rights, I don’t have to leave.” He said that Mr. Despres was snickering as he started walking away from him, and when Mr. Despres turned back his facial expression had changed.
That, Sgt. Matakovich said, raised his level of caution, and he decided to close the gap between himself and Mr. Despres. When the sergeant noticed Mr. Despres clenching his hand into a fist, he said, he pushed him.
After Mr. Despres fell to the ground, he yelled an expletive, according to the sergeant, who said he then continued trying to subdue Mr. Despres until he was cuffed. During the scuffle, Sgt. Matakovich said that Mr. Despres pulled his jacket collar to where it was almost choking him.
Mr. Despres was handcuffed, but momentarily slipped free a short time later, the video showed. He was quickly placed back into the handcuffs. Mr. Despres suffered minor injuries in the incident.
District Judge Ravenstahl said that both Sgt. Matakovich and Mr. Despres did some things the night of the incident that they both probably regret, but decided to dismiss the charges.
The decision brought applause from a courtroom filled with police officers who had watched the unusually long and at times contentious preliminary hearing.
In making his judgement, District Judge Ravenstahl recommended that any disciplinary action against Sgt. Matakovich should be handled internally by the police bureau.
Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, praised the judge’s decision in a statement:
“We are very pleased with District Judge Ravensthal's decision this afternoon to dismiss all charges filed against Sgt. Steve Matakovich. As we have said early on in the investigation this should have been handled through the Chiefs Office as a discipline issue rather than through the courts. This will be yet another potential obstruction between the administration and the rank and file as we struggle to improve morale."
Allegheny County district attorney spokesman Mike Manko declined comment.