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Do Pittsburgh police have an excessive force problem? Lawsuit by pummeled teen says 'yes'

Pittsburgh — Attorneys for a former high school student whose violent encounter with a Pittsburgh police sergeant outside Heinz Field left him with a bloody nose and the sergeant facing trial, is now suing the sergeant and the city, alleging officials permitted a pattern of excessive force.

Attorneys for Gabriel Despres, 20, filed the federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday against Stephen Matakovich, 47, seeking unspecified damages, WTAE-TV reports.

The suit stems from an encounter between Despres and then-sergeant Matakovich outside Heinz Field last November.

According to published reports:

Despres, then 19, was at the stadium to watch the Aliquippa-Thomas Jefferson football game.

At some point during the day, he is turned away from the gates by security because he had been drinking.

When he questioned the decision, the security guards called Matakovich over. The sergeant had been working a secondary detail at the stadium.

“Plaintiff was intoxicated, but he was not aggressive, belligerent, or violent, nor did he pose a threat of harm to the security personnel or anyone else,” the lawsuit reads.  

It adds that after Matakovich arrived, he began to shout obscenities and threatened to harm Despres. When Matakovich ordered him to leave, the lawsuit says, Despres started walking away. Matakovich then taunted him, and when Despres turned to face him, Matakovich struck him in the chest, knocking him to the ground, before punching him in the head, face and nose.

Matakovich ultimately charged Despres with assault on an officer, a felony.

But the charge was later dropped, after video of the encounter surfaced. That video is included above. Despres would later plead guilty to lesser counts of public drunkenness and defiant trespass.

The aforementioned video also helped bring about criminal charges against Matakovich, who is himself currently facing trial for violating Despres’ civil rights. Matakovich was also fired.

But Despres’ lawsuit alleges too little, too late, saying Pittsburgh police knew of Matakovich’s propensity to use excessive force long before their encounter outside Heinz Field that day. 

TribLive.com writes: 

The police department’s use-of-force expert warned top officials before the incident that Matakovich was striking people in the head, but the city took no action to discipline or retrain him, the lawsuit said.

The city failed to discipline Matakovich for a prior incident in which he assaulted a Landmark security guard and then filed false criminal charges against the guard. The lawsuit cites several other lawsuits that claimed Matakovich and other officers used excessive force and then filed false criminal charges.

According to WTAE-TV, Allegheny County prosecutors even found that Matakovich had used too much force more than 50 times since 2011, including “17 times when he injured someone with a blow to the head.”

His trial is expected to get underway next month. 

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