- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 3, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The FBI has begun reviewing a Pittsburgh police officer’s arrest of an allegedly drunk man at a high school championship football game in November.

A district judge on Monday dismissed charges of simple assault and official oppression against Sgt. Stephen Matakovich, a 22-year veteran who remains on unpaid leave.

The judge did that even after a city police expert reviewed security video of the arrest and testified Matakovich wasn’t justified in pushing the man down and striking him during the WPIAL football playoffs at Heinz Field.

Matakovich was working a security detail at the stadium. That means it was not part of his regularly scheduled police duties, but he was in uniform and earning extra pay that is funneled from the event organizer through the city.

Matakovich didn’t comment after Monday’s hearing and couldn’t immediately be located for comment Wednesday. But his defense attorney, Blaine Jones, said after the hearing that he was “ecstatic” that the charges were dropped, adding that Matakovich wasn’t trying to hurt the young man but merely wanted him to leave.

“And based on Sgt. Matakovich’s over two decades of experience, he wasn’t sure if there was a threat or not, so he was proactive in his actions,” Jones said after the hearing. He didn’t return a call for comment Wednesday on the FBI’s review.

Officer David Wright, the city’s expert on use of force, testified for the prosecution that Matakovich’s response - which included shoving 20-year-old Gabriel Despres to the ground and striking him in the face - “was not reasonable.”

Matakovich testified he felt Despres was about to attack him. The video shows Despres standing in front of the officer with his hands at his sides and not moving toward Matakovich or otherwise acting aggressively. Despres faces a preliminary hearing next month on charges of public drunkenness, underage drinking and defiant trespass.

Special Agent Gregory Heeb said only that the FBI is reviewing the incident in conjunction with the Allegheny County district attorney’s office. U.S. Attorney David Hickton, whose office would prosecute any charges the FBI files, declined comment Wednesday.

A spokesman for the district attorney’s office, which could refile the charges against Matakovich, also declined comment.

Police chief Cameron McLay said he wasn’t surprised by the FBI review.

“Given what has been occurring nationally, I am not surprised the FBI would have interest in this case,” he said in a statement.

He said he supported the decision to file criminal charges, “and if they decide to refile, I will support that decision as well.”

Matakovich remains on decision paid administrative leave and disciplinary action will not be made until an internal investigation is complete, McLay said.

Various watchdog groups criticized the decision to dismiss the criminal charges, and welcomed the FBI review.

“Is it any wonder why people are hesitant to trust the police?” said Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Citizens Police Review Board. The board investigates misconduct allegations against police and can make nonbinding disciplinary recommendations. “Police are not allowed to use force until there is a physical threat.”

The police union president, Officer Howard McQuillan, defended dismissing the charges and said they could have been “another potential obstruction between the administration and the rank-and-file as we struggle to improve morale.”


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