PITTSBURGH — A fired Pittsburgh police sergeant criminally charged in federal and state court with wrongly beating up a drunken high school football fan then trying to cover it up is now also being sued, along with the city.
Attorneys for Gabriel Despres, 20, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday against Stephen Matakovich, 47, seeking unspecified damages.
But it also alleges the city knew of Matakovich’s propensity to use unnecessary force — and past efforts to cover it up — before Matakovich pushed and punched Despres at the November 2015 championship game at Heinz Field. Allegheny County prosecutors, scheduled to try Matakovich next month, say he’s used too much force more than 50 times since 2011, including 17 times when he injured someone with a blow to the head.
Among other incidents, the suit references a lawsuit filed by a Pennsylvania state trooper who contends he was wrongfully arrested and assaulted by city police during a parking lot disturbance following a wedding reception, at which the trooper was a guest. Matakovich was the on-scene supervisor of those officers and “ordered them to meet to get their stories straight,” but surveillance video later supported the trooper’s version of the September 2014 altercation, the lawsuit said.
Matakovich has testified and filed police reports that Despres adopted a threatening, aggressive posture. But even the city police use of force expert has condemned Matakovich’s actions in sworn testimony after viewing surveillance video forwarded to the city by the Pittsburgh Steelers, who control the stadium.
The video, which led to Matakovich’s firing, as well as city police and FBI criminal investigations, showed Despres with his hands at his sides and not menacing Matakovich before the officer suddenly pushes down Despres and then strikes him in the face as he tries to get to his feet.
“The bottom line is our constitutional rights should not depend on the fortuitousness of video out there documenting what police did,” said Timothy O’Brien, one of Despres’ attorneys.
Matakovich also falsely charged Despres with felony aggravated assault to justify the wrongful use of force, the lawsuit contends.
Despres, a college junior studying mechanical engineering technology, was treated for a bloody nose. After police dropped the assault charge, he pleaded guilty to citations for public drunkenness and defiant trespass and paid more than $900 in fines and court costs.
Despres had given a friend the keys to his pickup truck because he was drinking, and was trying to get back into the stadium to speak with the friend when security guards from Landmark Event Staffing Services stopped him. A representative for the Pittsburgh company, which is also being sued, declined comment.
As Despres was leaving, Matakovich “taunted” him, telling Despres he wasn’t in the suburbs but rather “in the big city.” When Despres stopped walking, Matakovich hit Despres until the security guards told him to stop, the lawsuit said.
Matakovich’s union attorney said he had not seen the lawsuit and declined comment.
City lawyers didn’t immediately return a call, but typically don’t comment on lawsuits. Matakovich’s criminal attorneys declined comment.