“Raising One’s Middle Finger is Not a Crime”
By Molly Keller
In 2017, the Northampton Police Department received a grant from the retailer Wal-Mart to produce baseball style trading cards to be handed out to school children in the city. Kids who successfully collected all 50 cards were given a ride to school in a police cruiser. In response, The Shoestring is creating Northampton Police Misconduct Trading Cards. This is the fourth in the series. For #1 Robert Powers, click here. For #2, Alan Borowski, click here. And #3 Thomas Briotta, click here.
Andrew Kohl is one of five officers allegedly involved in a system of intimidation and retaliation against Eric Matlock after his violent arrest in 2017. Matlock, a houseless Northampton resident who identifies as brown and Indigenous, was arrested while protesting on the steps of City Hall—supposedly for intimidating people trying to enter the building. Matlock was charged with and later found not guilty of assault and battery on a police officer, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. A video of Matlock’s arrest was posted online, in which we see officers pepper spray Matlock in the eyes from less than 2 feet away and drag his limp body to their police car. This video went viral, a social media campaign was started in Matlock’s defense, and about 20 people showed up to his arraignment to show support. Mayor Narkewicz defended the officers’ actions.
This is where Kohl enters the story. In Matlock’s ongoing lawsuit against the Northampton police, he alleges that following his arrest, several officers including Kohl systematically harassed and intimidated him in retaliation for the bad press his case had given the police department. Specifically, the lawsuit alleges that Kohl would regularly yell at Matlock out of his cruiser window when driving by, and “made it a point to engage [Matlock] in a threatening and aggressive manner every day,” regularly asking about his and his family’s well-being. The lawsuit alleges that there was no reason for continually approaching Matlock like this, and as such, Matlock and his family “understood the inquiries to be veiled threats.”
In 2018, Kohl even went so far as to arrest Matlock’s wife for disorderly conduct after she gave him the middle finger. This, even after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled less than a decade earlier that raising one’s middle finger is protected under free speech. The precedent was set in a case involving Lieutenant Alan Borowski of the Northampton Police Department (Remember him? In case you missed it, he’s got his own trading card here). The charges against Matlock’s wife were dismissed.
Eric Matlock isn’t the only person who sued officer Kohl in 2020. Kohl was also sued in November of last year for defamation and intimidation, alongside Clay Delano, an officer also named in Matlock’s lawsuit. The plaintiff, Benjamin Maddison, alleges that Kohl and Delano “[looked] for a crime” they could charge Maddison with because he was filming the officers’ actions outside a dispensary, which “annoyed” them. According to the lawsuit, this constituted going to the dispensary manager and informing them of Maddison’s presence (the manager allegedly told Maddison that “they had not called the police” and were “unsure why” the officers were telling them this) and then heading to the Quality Inn to “solicit a trespass” for Maddison’s car parked in the lot. Maddison argues that all this was an attempt to intimidate him to prevent him from filming police activity in public.
This is the second of two lawsuits filed by Maddison against the Northampton police in 2020. The first, filed last May, alleges that Northampton police targeted him with frequent traffic stops and citations, retaliating against him for filing complaints against officers and filming their actions on public property. That lawsuit alleges that the emotional toll of the experience resulted in Maddison’s admittance to the hospital, “as he was having immense stress and felt the harassment was growing so much he wanted to commit suicide.” These two lawsuits suggest a pattern of Northampton police retaliating against an individual intent on holding police accountable, acting on their annoyance at his “cop-watching” by finding petty things to charge him with.
Outside of these two active cases, Kohl has a clear history of violence and misconduct.
In 2010, Kohl arrested former judge Michael Ryan for assault and battery of a police officer and disorderly conduct after Ryan refused to identify himself and tried to reach for his wallet after Kohl seized it. Ryan said that Kohl illegally detained him and searched him after “angrily” demanding to know where he was coming from and going to. Ryan was then pinned to his car, handcuffed, and arrested, all for reaching for his wallet after Kohl seized it.
“To me,” the former judge said in an interview with The Shoestring, “he had a hair-trigger temper. When I said ‘I’m not going to answer those questions, […] the color of his face turned red, he was full of rage.” Ryan explained that when he was stopped initially, “I never knew I was placed under arrest. They can’t search you unless they arrest you,” but when he resisted the illegal seizure of his wallet, “[Kohl] hit me hard; he put the cuffs on hard.” Meanwhile, Ryan says, by the time his lawyer showed up at the police station, the cops hadn’t even decided yet what crime to charge him with.
When asked whether he thought this arrest was retaliation for something he’d done in the past, Ryan said that he never knew Kohl personally, but as a judge, he’d had a history of making decisions that cops didn’t like; “They thought I was very pro-defendant and anti-cop.” Kohl testified in court that he didn’t know at the time that Ryan was a former judge, but Ryan pushed back on that: “One of the other officers said, ‘Judge, don’t leave,’” so if Kohl didn’t already know who he was, that would have clued him in. “Oh, I’m sure he knew who I was,” Ryan said. He could see “no reason for four cops to show up to two people changing a flat tire.”
Ryan released a video of his arrest shortly before his trial, and was found not guilty after only 90 minutes of jury deliberation. When asked why he didn’t file a civil suit against Kohl and the police department, Ryan said he didn’t want money to be redirected from city schools to pay for lawsuits like this.
In 2013, Kohl tried to arrest a man for selling marijuana and, to stop the man from escaping after he fled, Kohl punched him several times and then pepper sprayed him in the face and eyes. In the end, the suspect was arrested for and charged with “disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, assault and battery on a police officer, assault with a dangerous weapon, possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of Suboxone, a Class A drug.” We should note that the “dangerous weapon” in question was a BB gun, and that Suboxone is a drug often used as a harm-reduction measure for medical patients in recovery from opiate addiction.
In 2015, a judge granted a restraining order against Kohl without advance notice because there was “a substantial likelihood of immediate danger of abuse.” Kohl posed enough of a threat to his victim that the judge deemed it necessary for the victim’s safety. The order prohibited Kohl from making contact with the victim, and stated, “You are ordered not to abuse the plaintiff by harming, threatening or attempting to harm the plaintiff physically or by placing the plaintiff in fear of imminent serious physical harm, or by using force, threat or duress to make the plaintiff engage in sexual relations.” It also required Kohl to give up all guns and ammunition to the police. He was suspended without pay from the police department for 75 days, and any questions about the circumstances of his suspension was met with a complete lack of transparency, despite a number of court decisions that require internal affairs investigations to be made publicly available.
Molly Keller is a new contributor to The Shoestring. She is a senior at Smith College and lives in Amherst.
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