Pepper-sprayed man accuses Northampton of racial bias

Files suit against city, police chief over 2017 incident

FOR MOST POLICE OFFICERS, pepper spray is standard equipment, a tool lauded in the law enforcement world as an alternative to lethal force. But a case in Northampton is raising questions about whether pepper spray is also susceptible to misuse.

Eric Matlock staged a protest outside Northampton City Hall in 2017, blocking the entrance to the building. Police were called, and Matlock was pepper sprayed; arrested; and charged with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and assault on a police officer.

A jury acquitted Matlock of all of the charges after his attorney argued that his client did not know he was being arrested when he hit a police officer after being pepper sprayed. One bystander testified she heard Matlock say he couldn’t breathe, and called the scene “excessive, disturbing” and that it “seemed unnecessary.”

The Northampton Police Department conducted an internal review and determined the responding officers’ use of force was within department policy, but Matlock is now seeking $700,000 in damages from the city and several officials. Through an attorney, Dana Goldblatt,  Matlock is accusing the city’s police department of targeting African-Americans.

“Northampton has a reputation for targeting people of color for aggressive policing and then lying about it,” wrote Matlock in a letter to the city.

Goldblatt said he will seek a jury trial, and admissions of wrongdoing of each of the named defendants, including Police Chief Jody Kasper and five officers.

The letter and potential litigation are in response to “the defendants’ physical assault on the plaintiff, violations of his civil rights, and retaliation for his exercise of protected speech and expressive conduct.”

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

This is not the first time the liberal western Massachusetts city has found itself in a mess over racism and policing. In 2016, the city agreed to pay Jonas Correia $52,500 in an out-of-court settlement after he was arrested, put on the ground, and maced outside of a bar in 2013. Criminal charges against Correia were eventually dropped.

Police chief Kasper, new back in 2016 at the time of the Correia settelement, said that officers would begin taking trainings covering race and ethnicity, implicit bias, and systemic racism. That was a year before Matlock’s incident.