FBI reviewing police sergeant's arrest of intoxicated man
February 3, 2016 12:00 AM
This is a screen shot that shows Heinz Field event staff talking to Gabriel Despres, center, before he is approached by police.
By Andrew Goldstein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office are reviewing how a Pittsburgh police officer subdued an intoxicated man at a high school football playoff game at Heinz Field in November.
Word of the review came a day after a district judge dismissed charges against Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, a 22-year veteran, who had been accused of using unnecessary force in taking down Gabriel Despres, 20, of South Park.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Gregory A. Heeb said in an emailed statement Tuesday night that the federal agency is “reviewing the incident, and we are reviewing the matter in coordination with the United States Attorney’s Office as well as the District Attorney’s Office.”
Agent Heeb did not respond to further questions about the scope of the review, including whether it was a civil rights inquiry or a criminal matter.
District Judge Robert Ravenstahl’s decision Monday to dismiss charges of simple assault and official oppression against Sgt. Matakovich after a preliminary hearing also has drawn the attention of police watchdog groups.
Security video from Heinz Field shows Sgt. Matakovich using two hands to shove Mr. Despres to the ground and striking him several times after Mr. Despres, who admitted he had been drinking heavily, tried to get into Heinz Field to watch a WPIAL playoff game Nov. 28.
“Is it any wonder why people are hesitant to trust the police?” Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizen Police Review Board, said Tuesday. “Where was the threat? Police are not allowed to use force until there is a physical threat.”
Sgt. Matakovich claimed Mr. Despres took an aggressive stance and made a fist before the officer pushed and struck him. Mr. Despres and other witnesses denied those claims.
District Judge Ravenstahl did not elaborate in the courtroom on his decision. He declined comment Tuesday.
Two members of the Pittsburgh police testified against Sgt. Matakovich at Monday’s preliminary hearing, including use-of-force instructor David Wright. Officer Wright said the sergeant’s “use of force was not reasonable.”
“I think that the [district] judge overstepped his boundaries because on that level he’s only supposed to see if there’s enough evidence to carry it to trial. He’s not supposed to decide guilt or innocence. There was clearly enough evidence to carry it over for trial,” said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, a citizens group.
“I think if that was any other citizen and he had the same amount of evidence, that decision wouldn’t have been made. Obviously, it was a biased decision because he was a police officer. It was a gross miscarriage of justice.”
Several dozen police officers attended the hearing in what appeared to be a show of solidarity with Sgt. Matakovich. They applauded when the magistrate announced his decision to dismiss the charges.
Asked about that Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay said in an emailed statement Tuesday night:
“While I recognize the need to support a peer who is going through tough times, it is also vital my members remain mindful of how their actions will be viewed by others. I ask the public to grant my members a measure of understanding as we navigate these challenging times. I have discussed this issue with key members and am confident my members will remember the importance of professional decorum at all times, even tough ones.”
Sgt. Matakovich has been on unpaid leave since the incident. City public safety spokeswoman Emily Schaffer said an internal review is underway.
Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1, hailed the ruling and noted that the charges could be “another potential obstruction between the administration and the rank and file as we struggle to improve morale.”
But Ms. Pittinger called the dismissal of charges “outrageous,” and suggested that the video was all the evidence that was needed to show “that was an assault.”
“That video speaks volumes as to how [Sgt. Matakovich] approaches his job,” she added. “If you did that or if I did that then we’d be in jail.”
Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney’s office, said, ”We are considering all of our options.” The DA’s office could refile charges. Mr. Manko had no comment when asked about the FBI’s involvement.
Mr. Despres faces a preliminary hearing March 16 on summary charges of defiant trespass, public drunkenness and underage drinking stemming from the incident.
Andrew Goldstein: email@example.com, 412-263-1352 or on Twitter @angolds. Jonathan D. Silver and Madasyn Czebiniak contributed.