Feds seek prison for convicted city police sergeant
Matakovich to be sentenced today
Recent filings in the federal criminal case against former Pittsburgh police Sgt. Stephen Matakovich paint drastically different portraits of the man who will be sentenced Wednesday for using excessive force on a teenager.
The defense shared stories of the sergeant using his own money to buy a bike for a boy who had his stolen, and for a homeless man to have a place to stay on a frigid night. A man who strove to create a sense of family among the officers he supervised. A man who dedicated himself to making a difference in his community.
But prosecutors countered those claims, writing that Matakovich has “generally a track record of utilizing a high level of force.”
Citing his disciplinary history — and details of the crime for which Matakovich will be sentenced — the U.S. Attorney’s office believes he should go to prison. The standard range in federal sentencing guidelines is 27 to 33 months.
The defense is asking U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon for probation.
A jury convicted Matakovich, 48, in May of violating the civil rights of Gabriel Despres, then 19, saying he used excessive force on him outside Heinz Field during high school football playoffs in 2015. The jury found Matakovich not guilty of a charge of falsifying reports.
“Despite the fact that the defendant was required as a police officer to protect each citizen and respect every individual’s constitutional rights, the evidence indicates that the defendant acted out of frustration and anger and willfully used excessive force against the victim,” the government wrote in a sentencing brief.
“Unlike so many defendants who come before this court, the defendant, by his own account, had a good childhood. Further setting the defendant apart, he had the opportunity to pursue a respected career, and he had every chance at success in life.”
“Despite all of these advantages, the defendant abused the
position of trust he held and, in contrast to the hundreds of police officers honorably serving Pittsburgh on a daily basis, the defendant misused the considerable powers he had been given as an officer of the law. Moreover, the defendant’s employment history has not been without incident.”
In an additional sentencing brief filed Sunday by the U.S. Attorney’s office, prosecutors wrote that Matakovichhas a lengthy disciplinary history with the city’s Office of Municipal Investigations, which accumulated 34 complaints against the former sergeant, including 11 separate citizen complaints for excessive use of force.
Three of those complaints, prosecutors wrote, were sustained: The first from 1997, when Matakovich was accused of falsely arresting a person, and the second in 2008, when Matakovich was accused of using excessive force and was found to have violated the rule regulating conduct toward the public.
The third sustained complaint, the U.S. Attorney’s office wrote, was in 2013, when Matakovich was accused of using a Taser on someone without cause. He was exonerated for the use of force, the brief continued, but cited for failing to properly report the use of his Taser.
Further, the prosecution continued, a review of 56 subject-resistance reports filed by Matakovich since 2011 found that he never used the lowest amount of force available, forcible handcuffing, while his most common use of force was found to be strikesto the face and head.
Of the 56 reports, the memo continued, 20 involved strikes to the head and face, with 17 of those resulting in injuries such as a broken nose, jaw, or being knocked unconscious.
And in 2010, Matakovich was ordered to undergo retraining “to specifically ‘address punches to the face,’” prosecutors wrote, although after Matakovich provided additional details about the incidents to justify his use of force, no retraining was necessary.
“Perhaps the worst of all of the defendant’s egregious conduct is that he falsely charged [Despres] with a serious, violent felony offense, arguably in an effort to obtain the victim’s silence by obtaining a guilty plea through a deal which would allow the victim to avoid the life-altering consequences of a violent, felony conviction against a police officer,” prosecutors wrote.
But in her filing last week, defense attorney Tina O. Miller highlighted a number of incidents in which Matakovich went out of his way to help those in need and described him as a dedicated officer.
She included character statements from friends, family and former colleagues. She added anecdotes about how Matakovich, as a high school student, carried fellow students and their wheelchairs upstairs because his school had no elevator; and while as a police officer he became affectionately known by those in his patrol area as “Sgt. Steve.”
“Mr. Matakovich viewed being a police officer as an opportunity to make a difference, to make Pittsburgh and his community safe and to help anyone in need,” Ms. Miller wrote.
In asking the court for probation, she said her client had already incurred “significant consequences as a result of his conduct.”
“Professionally, he has lost his job but more profoundly, he has lost the ability to carry out his dream of being a police officer after 22 years of serving the Pittsburgh community,” she wrote.
She added that he also had experienced “tremendous humiliation and devastation that comes with that loss.”