Police Chief Jason Wood

North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood declined to comment on the specifics of a lawsuit against the city and three officers alleging excessive use of force during a 2019 arrest. But, he said, “any kind of use of force is unfortunate because we would certainly rather not have to use it. But it’s an unfortunate part of the job.”

NORTH ADAMS — A man has filed a lawsuit against the city and three of its police officers, alleging that the officers used excessive force and broke his arm during an October 2019 arrest.

Richard Sifton, 39, filed the lawsuit in May in federal court in Springfield, naming the city and officers Kevin Fitzpatrick, Trevor Manning and Ivan Cardeno as defendants and seeking $750,000 in damages. Sifton accuses the officers of assaulting him and intentionally breaking his arm.

A response to the complaint filed by a lawyer representing the city and its officers denies the allegations.

Sifton was arrested after robbing Dave’s Package Store and Dunkin’ in October 2019. The package store clerk reported that Sifton brandished an object from his pocket as if it was a weapon, and the Dunkin’ employee reported that Sifton threatened to stab her, according to the police report.

Fitzpatrick was chasing Sifton on foot in a wooded area, and Sifton did not stop when asked to and did not show his hands when asked to, according to the police report. Fitzpatrick tried to taze him, but missed and then grabbed Sifton, who was resisting. He put Sifton’s arms behind his back and “heard a pop,” according to the police report.

Soon after, Cardeno and Manning arrived to assist Fitzpatrick, according to the report. While following Sifton in the wooded area, a branch snapped back at Fitzpatrick and struck him in the ear, leaving him with a perforated eardrum and temporary hearing loss, the report states.

Because of a previous injury, Sifton wrote in the complaint, he is disabled and has limited range of motion, making it not possible to handcuff him behind his back, and instead requiring handcuffs in front of him — which he says that North Adams Police knew because of previous encounters. In past arrests, he said, officers had cuffed his arms in front of his body.

He said that officers also hit him in the head, face and torso.

“While this was happening the Plaintiff repeatedly screamed for the officers to stop and to please not break his arm,” the complaint reads. “The defendants responded by yelling ‘shut the f- — up’ and continued punching him and eventually breaking and dislocating the Plaintiff’s arm.”

After his arrest, Sifton was taken to Berkshire Health North, where he was treated for bruising underneath an eye and a broken bone in one of his arms, according to medical documents included in the lawsuit.

Representing himself

Sifton, who filed the lawsuit from the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, does not have a lawyer, and he filed a motion in court for an appointment of a lawyer, stating that he could not afford one. But, his request was denied, as there is no constitutional right to a lawyer in a civil case, court records state.

David S. Lawless, who is listed in court documents as the lawyer representing the city and the three named officers, did not reply to requests for comment. Fitzpatrick, Manning and Cardeno could not be reached for comment.

In a response to the complaint filed in court, Lawless writes that the officers deny the allegations, including that officers were aware of Sifton’s disability, that they intentionally broke his arm and that they beat him.

“The defendants say that the injuries and damages alleged were caused, in whole or in part, by the plaintiff’s own negligence,” Lawless writes.

“The defendants state that any actions taken by the defendants in connection with the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint were justified and required by considerations of public policy, safety and law enforcement.”

Writing that Sifton’s complaint is “frivolous and not made in good faith,” the response also requests attorneys fees.

And, citing qualified immunity, the response notes that officers are “immune from liability in this case.”

Sifton pleaded guilty to two counts of larceny and assault with a dangerous weapon, and was given a two-year sentence, while resisting-arrest charges were dropped, according to court documents in the Northern Berkshire District Court. In mid-June, Sifton’s sentence ended and he was released from the jail, according to information filed with the court.

He lists his contact information in court documents, all of which were filed before he was released, as the Berkshire County Jail and House of Correction, and Sifton could not be reached for comment.

North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard declined to comment on the lawsuit.

“I wouldn’t comment on an ongoing matter,” he told The Eagle.

No weapon found

The lawsuit was not the first time the North Adams Police Department heard of Sifton’s complaint. The department received a handwritten complaint from Sifton this February , according to Police Chief Jason Wood. “So this is almost a year and a half later.”

A formal internal affairs investigation was not opened in response to the complaint, Wood said. Fitzpatrick no longer works for the department and started working for the state police more than a year ago, while the other two officers, Manning and Cardeno, still work for the department.

“It’s in litigation right now, so there’s not a lot I can say about it,” Wood said when asked about the lawsuit. “Without me being there, I really can’t say if the force was excessive or not.”

He noted that the initial robbery led officers to believe that Sifton might have a weapon. When Sifton was searched after the second robbery, there was not a knife on him, according to the police report.

Use-of-force issues are a “delicate subject,” Wood said. “I don’t want to minimize things at all. But we’ve just got to do our due diligence and make sure that people are treated fairly. But the other side to that is we need to make sure that everyone goes home safe too. Any kind of use of force is unfortunate because we would certainly rather not have to use it. But it’s an unfortunate part of the job.”

A 52-page use-of-force policy, most recently updated in April, outlines the North Adams department’s use-of-force policies.

“The degree of force used is dependent upon the facts surrounding the situation the officer encounters,” the policy reads. “Only a reasonable amount of force may be used and is dependent upon the totality of circumstances.”

When someone actively is resisting — that includes pulling, turning or walking away from an officer — officers are able to use some functions of tasers, and if there is “violent resistance,” they can use a baton, according to the policy.

“The policy does not specifically list hands or fists as an option,” Wood wrote in a follow-up email. “However,” he added, “the policy references ‘weaponless physical force’ several times, which would apply to cooperative controls, contact controls, some compliance techniques and defensive tactics which also includes tasers & batons, as well as hand strikes if warranted. This is what is taught in the Basic Recruit Training Academy as well as in-service training every year.”

Sifton’s lawsuit is not the only open one alleging that North Adams Police used excessive force.

Joseph Poplaski filed a lawsuit in federal court in August 2019, alleging that officer Benjamin Austin used excessive force during a 2017 incident in which Poplaski never was charged with any crime. In a response to the lawsuit complaint filed in court, Austin denied seriously injuring Poplaski. That case is ongoing, according to records in U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@berkshireeagle.com

or 413-496-6272.

Reporter

Greta Jochem, a Report for America Corps member, joined the Eagle in 2021. Previously, she was a reporter at the Daily Hampshire Gazette. She is also a member of the investigations team.