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DA Sullivan declines to drop charges despite false claims by NPD

Newly submitted bystander video proves police narratives false

By Molly Keller

On October 11th of last year, two bystanders to an arrest were themselves arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, interfering with a police officer, and in one case, assault and battery on a police officer. A video of the events leading up to both arrests was recently shared with the Northwestern District Attorney’s office and obtained by The Shoestring. This video contradicts much of the police narrative of the event, but the District Attorney has chosen to continue prosecuting the case anyway. 

According to police narratives, officers were responding to a report of a possible past break-in at Forget-Me-Not florist at 114 Main St. The owners said they hadn’t locked up the night before, and someone had let themselves in, stayed for about an hour, and took a decorative mask that was eventually found across the street. Nothing else had been taken from the store. Shortly afterwards, officers saw someone, later identified as Natalie Hansen, that looked like the person in the surveillance video. They followed her into an alley off of Strong Ave where they attempted to arrest her. Some sort of violent struggle occurred between the officers and Hansen. None of this was captured on video.

The video submitted to the DA, taken by a bystander, begins after the physical struggle between Hansen and the police is over. We see Hansen lying on the ground in distress with one female officer kneeling next to her and four male officers standing over her. There are also at least two more officers standing, for the most part, offscreen. A small group of bystanders, mostly women, are also present. One woman kneels near Hansen, apparently speaking quietly to her; another, standing and filming the officers, shouts to remind Hansen of her Miranda rights; a third, Erica Tibbetts, can be heard calmly saying “she is being assaulted, you guys are assaulting her,” and, later, “is she under arrest?”; a 19-year-old college student, Gabriella Devito, stands in the back filming, silently for the most part; and one man walks towards the group, watches for less than a minute, and walks away. If we include the person filming, there are at most six bystanders present in the immediate vicinity of the arrest throughout the entire video. Two of these bystanders were ultimately arrested along with Hansen.

Police narratives written that day describe a “hostile,” “yelling” and non-compliant crowd of 10-15 people “surrounding” and “standing over” the officers on the scene. Officers Matthew Montini and Rachel Bunce further inflated the crowd to 15-20 people. 

Four minutes into the video, Lieutenant Alan Borowski arrives and immediately declares the area a “police zone” (a term with no legal basis) and orders two of the five bystanders to step away. Tibbetts walks up to him and volunteers “I saw- I saw the violence here–” but Borowski interrupts her, grabs her arms, and tells her she’s under arrest. This all happens very quickly– only two seconds elapse between Tibbetts walking up to him and getting arrested, and Borowski was on the scene for less than fifteen seconds before making this arrest.

In his report, Borowski claimed that a much longer interaction took place between Tibbetts and himself: 

“I put my arm out in an attempt to move them and one female, later identified as Erica Tibbetts, refused to move. I had a brief conversation with Tibbetts and advised her that we needed to make the scene safe and she needed to get back. Tibbetts and several others had created an unsafe environment for the Police Officers and the suspect that was on the ground […] Tibbetts continued to yell and refused to move from the area, taking a half step or so back and toward the alley wall. I instructed her once again that she needed to move back from the Officers and the area and she again refused now pressing her body up against the wall.” 

Only then, according to Borowski, did he place Tibbetts under arrest. From the video it’s clear that none of this transpired.

In a motion to dismiss the charges against Tibbetts, her attorney Dana Goldblatt wrote, “Officer Borowski’s account in particular is notable for both its detail and its creativity. Besides making up actions for Ms. Tibbetts that never occurred, he has fabricated 15 additional bystanders and an entire conversation. Whereas the application describes the Defendant as variously sitting, leaning, and looming in obstructive ways, the video reveals that she was not doing any of these things.” 

She went on, “The NPD officers all appear to have participated in fabricating some aspect of the incident so as to create a sense of menace, chaos, and hostility that was not representative of the scene. For example, multiple officers who experienced a crowd of five calm bystanders described it as a jeering mob of 20 people. But Officer Borowski’s account in particular is so egregiously at odds with the plain evidence of the bystander video as to constitute perjury. He could not have produced a report that so inaccurately describes his own interactions by  accident or mistake.”

Lt. Borowski has a history of misconduct in the Northampton Police Department including, most notably, his use of force against Jonas Correia in 2013, which cost the city’s insurer $52,000. He was also the highest paid employee of the city of Northampton in FY 2020 and the second-highest paid in FY 2021. He did not respond to a request for comment. 

In the background of the video as Tibbetts is told she was under arrest, another officer turns around and begins to shove Devito and another bystander away from the original arrestee. Devito, who we never see speak to or interact directly with an officer, was ultimately arrested as well for disorderly conduct, interfering with a police officer, and assault and battery on a police officer. 

Officer Wojcicki described the events as follows: “As Officer Briotta and I held our hands out and began to physically push the bystanders back, one bystander later identified as Gabriella Carmen Devito, became irate. […] She suddenly shoved my left shoulder and chest several times. Officer Briotta was able to get Devito against a nearby wall.”

In the motion to dismiss the charges, Goldblatt (who also represents Devito) wrote “Ms. Devito was not instructed to back away. Ms. Devito did not push any officers, swat at them, or shout at them. She is easily the least interactive person in the frame. […] Whatever reason the officer had for lunging at Ms. Devito, it certainly was not Ms. DeVito’s conduct.”

Goldblatt shared the video with the prosecutor three weeks ago on April 12 and publicly filed motions to dismiss the charges against Tibbetts and Devito on April 29. There was a hearing yesterday, May 5, in which the motions were continued (postponed until a future date) and the prosecutor withdrew from the cases. The District Attorney’s office has not dropped the charges, and a new prosecutor has been assigned to the cases. 

Goldblatt told The Shoestring that the charge of assault and battery on a police officer against Devito, 19, carries a mandatory minimum 90 days in jail and makes Devito ineligible for diversion from court. This means that they will either have to go to trial, a stressful prospect for a young college student, or make an “admission to sufficient fact,” essentially admitting that the prosecutor could prove that they were guilty and agreeing to comply with the judge’s terms to avoid going to court or pleading guilty. This, though, would prevent Devito from later suing the NPD for wrongful arrest. 

Goldblatt said that as far as she remembers, she has never been able to get charges dropped when police narratives are exposed as false. “The DA in Northampton is very supportive of the Northampton Police Department,” she said. “On a practical level, this means that if police lie, the case has to go to trial. That’s just the local culture. There are all sorts of ethical rules about prosecutors not prosecuting once they know a person is innocent. There are also rules about not suborning perjury. But those rules aren’t enforced against prosecutors. So the reality is that all the video evidence in the world won’t result in a case being dropped if the Northampton Police don’t want it dropped.”

Goldblatt pointed to a different case, the prosecution of Eric Matlock in 2017, as an example of the DA choosing not to drop the charges against a defendant despite overwhelming evidence that no crime took place. In Matlock’s case, she said, the prosecution’s own witness “got on the stand and testified that everything Eric [Matlock] said was true.”

She went on, “The police story was that Eric [Matlock] was trying to physically fight the police and that’s why they pepper sprayed and arrested him. The bystander account was that Eric was not aggressive but that he went limp and had to be picked up and carried away. Every single civilian bystander reported essentially the same conduct. Went limp. Carried down the stairs. But the DA still took that case to trial.” Matlock was ultimately found not guilty, and has since sued the NPD for violating his first amendment rights. 

The Shoestring asked the District Attorney’s office for comment on why they have chosen to continue prosecuting the charges against Erica Tibbetts and Gabriella Devito after seeing the video footage. They responded, “We consider every criminal complaint on an individual basis as we follow the facts where they lead. While we can’t comment on ongoing investigations, we invite members of the public to submit video or photographic evidence that might shed light on a particular case. We make a concerted effort to investigate allegations in an expedient way, but also with care and thought as we examine all the relevant facts to come to a just conclusion.”

Molly Keller is a regular contributor at The Shoestring.

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