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Feds indict former Pittsburgh police officer over Heinz Field arrest

| Wednesday, April 6, 2016, 11:21 a.m.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Pittsburgh this week joined the case against a former city police sergeant, charging him with federal civil rights violations and lying about his violent arrest of a man at Heinz Field last fall.

A federal grand jury Tuesday indicted Stephen Matakovich, 47, of Brookline on one count of deprivation of civil rights and one count of falsification of a document.

Matakovich used unreasonable force when he pushed and repeatedly struck Gabriel Despres, 19, of South Park during the Nov. 28 arrest caught on video at a high school football playoff game, prosecutors said.

“We all share a common interest in equal treatment under the law,” said U.S. Attorney David Hickton. “I think that's particularly true when you're talking about a police officer who's been entrusted with a badge and a gun, and I think we have a right to expect that they will follow the law. We certainly have a right to expect they will file accurate reports on their investigations.”

The indictment comes a month after the Tribune-Review reported that federal prosecutors across the country have declined to prosecute law enforcement officers 96 percent of the time over the past two decades. The Trib's “ Justice For Some ” series found that Western Pennsylvania prosecutors have followed that trend, declining to prosecute 96 percent of 185 civil rights complaints involving police officers.

Matakovich, a 22-year veteran of the force whom police Chief Cameron McLay fired over the incident, awaits an April 15 hearing on state charges. In the federal case, Hickton's office asked a judge to issue a summons for Matakovich to appear at an April 26 hearing.

Matakovich's lawyer, Blaine Jones, said his firm was aware federal charges were possible. One attorney in the firm, Al Burke, is a former federal prosecutor.

“We were hoping that the preliminary hearing that lasted three hours, in which the magistrate dismissed all charges, would have held, so to speak. But it didn't, and now we'll be prepared for whatever we have to do to fight this case,” Jones said.

Mayor Bill Peduto called it “a sad day for our city and police bureau, but a good one for our justice system.”

The head of the police union saw things differently.

“I strongly believe that when all the facts and circumstances come out in this case, Sgt. Matakovich's actions will be deemed reasonable based upon the totality of the circumstances Sgt. Matakovich faced during the arrest of the individual at Heinz Field,” said Robert Swartzwelder, president of Fraternal Order of Police Pittsburgh Lodge No. 1.

The federal indictment said Matakovich falsified portions of his report to justify his use of force and omitted that he had access to the security video.

Charging documents filed by the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office disputed Matakovich's report that Despres acted aggressively toward him. Video evidence showed Despres standing with his hands in his pockets or below his waist until Matakovich pushed him to the ground and started to punch him.

Hickton said the video was key to the federal charges.

Despres, who faces charges of public drunkenness, underage drinking and trespassing, has a preliminary hearing scheduled for May 16.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.'s office initially charged Matakovich with official oppression and simple assault. District Judge Robert Ravenstahl dismissed those charges. Prosecutors refiled them in February and added perjury and making an unsworn falsification to authorities.

Although state and federal prosecutors can pursue their separate cases, the state generally drops its charges after a federal indictment, said Wesley Oliver, a Duquesne University law professor who specializes in criminal law.

Zappala's office has been in regular contact with federal authorities, said office spokesman Mike Manko.

“Having said that, our case against this defendant remains active at this time,” he said.

Brian Bowling and Matthew Santoni are Tribune-Review staff writers.

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