Civil lawsuit against Northampton, officers stemming from 2017 arrest in front of City Hall set for fall trial

 Eric Matlock watches as the jury enters during Matlock’s trial in Northampton District Court, Sept. 26, 2018.

Eric Matlock watches as the jury enters during Matlock’s trial in Northampton District Court, Sept. 26, 2018. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

In a screenshot taken from a video on Facebook, Northampton police officers are shown arresting Eric Matlock outside City Hall, Aug. 7, 2017.

In a screenshot taken from a video on Facebook, Northampton police officers are shown arresting Eric Matlock outside City Hall, Aug. 7, 2017. FILE IMAGE

By JAMES PENTLAND

Staff Writer

Published: 06-10-2024 3:48 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A civil lawsuit brought against the city by a former Northampton man who claims he was illegally arrested and defamed when he was detained while protesting in 2017 is set for trial in October.

Eric Matlock filed suit in 2020, claiming two Northampton police officers interfered with his civil rights when they arrested and pepper-sprayed him on the steps of City Hall on Aug. 7, 2017.

He further alleged the officers, Clay Delano and Brent Dzialo, defamed him when they charged him with resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and assault and battery on a public official.

Matlock, 40, is also suing the city of Northampton for negligence and failure to supervise and train its police officers.

His attorney, Dana Goldblatt of Northampton, said she anticipates a short trial, though it has been scheduled for two weeks, beginning Oct. 15, in Hampshire Superior Court.

“(Matlock) will testify, the photographer will testify,” she said. “I don’t think it’s complicated.”

Matlock filed the civil suit after he was acquitted by a jury of the charges arising from his City Hall arrest. He originally named five police officers as well as former Police Chief Jody Kasper and former Mayor David Narkewicz in the suit, but the list of defendants was whittled down through a process of summary judgments, Goldblatt said.

The parties filed a joint pretrial memorandum last week in Superior Court, presenting different versions of events.

Plaintiff’s claims

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Matlock states that Delano, who is no longer on the Northampton force, and Dzialo approached him while he was sitting on the steps of City Hall holding a sign that read “Give back what you stole.”

According to previous Gazette reporting, he was protesting the removal of two of his children by the Department of Children and Families.

Matlock, who is of African American and Native American ancestry, claims he did not engage with the officers before they grabbed him and began carrying him down the steps.

His complaint states he went limp until the officers spread his legs apart and lifted him toward a railing in a manner that made him fear injury, so he moved his hands to protect himself and twisted his body.

The officers then told him to stop resisting and began pepper-spraying him. In response, Matlock wrapped his arms and legs around the railing and tried to cover his mouth and eyes. He alleges police grabbed his hair and pulled his head back so they could spray him in the face.

He was taken to the police department, where efforts to wash the pepper spray out of his eyes were unsuccessful because the decontamination shower was not sufficiently pressurized, the complaint states.

Officers Dzialo and Delano wrote in their reports that Matlock had resisted arrest and physically attacked them. As a result, the suit claims, besides pain, anxiety and job loss, Matlock “experienced reputational harm that negatively affected his personal relationships, his employment and his day-to-day interactions.”

He was tried in 2019 on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault and battery on a public official, and was acquitted on all counts.

But Matlock claims his life was altered by the experience. He says he was perceived as crazy or a troublemaker, and he experienced day-to-day hostility from police, which he found frightening, including being charged with offenses that aren’t crimes, the suit states. He eventually moved out of state.

Defendants’ claims

The defendants, represented by Boston attorney Jeffrey Trapani, present another version of events. Police say they were called to City Hall that day for a report of a person blocking the main entrance. The call reportedly came from an employee who had asked the man to move and gotten no response.

Police say they saw “at least one person” being turned away from City Hall by Matlock’s presence before they approached and asked him to move to either side of the doors. Receiving no response, the officers told him they planned to move him. When they began to move him, police state, he tried to hit one of them, then scrambled to the nearby railing.

Informed he was under arrest, Matlock allegedly refused to let go of the railing, and the officers deployed pepper spray, which initially had no effect. It took additional officers to remove Matlock from the railing, after which he was taken to the police station.

Police acknowledge a problem with the eyewash station, but say Matlock did not report physical distress when he was taken to the lockup.

Police and the other defendants say there’s no evidence that officers arrested Matlock for protesting, that officers defamed him in any way, or that he was denied appropriate care after his arrest.

The defendants also rebut claims that officers were not properly trained for this incident or that supervisors or city officials failed to properly supervise employees. And they assert further that there’s no evidence that Matlock suffered any of the damages he has claimed.

Goldblatt said former chief Kasper had stated, incorrectly, that it was lawful to arrest someone for creating a “hazardous condition” while protesting, and that she had instructed her officers accordingly.

“The law’s clear — police are not allowed to arrest people who are not committing a crime,” Goldblatt said.

Matlock is seeking $100,000 in damages per count, or $300,000, Goldblatt said. But she noted that the jury is not limited to that amount should it find that damages are warranted.

James Pentland can be reached at jpentland@gazettenet.com.