Federal suit filed in 2016 Pittsfield shoplifting arrest

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PITTSFIELD — A woman arrested for shoplifting in 2016 has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that excessive and unnecessary force was used in her arrest and officers attempted to cover up her claims.

The incident outside the Big Y supermarket on West Street led to a yearslong battle between the city and the arresting officer, Dale Eason, who was dismissed for making false claims in his arrest report. He was ordered reinstated based on a mediator's findings, but he left the force in March. 

The suit, filed by Jennifer Estes, names Eason, the city of Pittsfield, Police Chief Michael Wynn and several other department members as defendants. It alleges a conspiracy to hide the unlawful conduct of officers and a lack of appropriate supervision and discipline, as well as a tolerance of officers' use of excessive force.

Estes is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages.

Responding to a request for comment, Pittsfield City Solicitor Stephen N. Pagnotta said, "This is a pending legal matter. We have no comment at this time."

Eason responded to a call for shoplifting at the supermarket Feb. 23, 2016, and took Estes into custody.

In her suit, Estes alleges that she was choked and punched in the stomach by Eason during the arrest, and notes that the report he filed contained information later determined to be false.

"Eason made up a story that while in the back of the cruiser, Estes began to thrash around and to hurl insults at him," part of the suit reads.

Store staff said they wanted a photo of Estes to help enforce a no-trespass order against her.

Eason said he couldn't bring her back into the store for that, and instead pulled her from the cruiser and placed her on the ground so she could be photographed.

Estes claims that she was injured while being forcibly removed from the cruiser and her head was intentionally hit against the door frame.

The suit further claims that she was choked while being held on the ground for the photograph, and that she was punched in the stomach.

"There was no legal justification for the force used by Officer Eason on Ms. Estes and no reasonable officer would have used such force against her," according to the suit. "His actions show deliberate indifference."

In his arrest report, Eason wrote that Estes had been removed from the cruiser "for her safety," a claim that he later admitted was false.

The suit further claims that Estes told officers during booking that she was three months pregnant and had been punched in the stomach and choked during her arrest, and that after the booking video was turned off, Estes was inappropriately searched by three officers — two male and one female — during which time her pants were pulled down and her breast was exposed while the male officers told her to shut up.

Estes alleges that she informed other officers that she was assaulted by Eason and that information was not relayed to superiors.

"Without this information, the entire chain of command is unable to assess how its officers use force in the field," part of the complaint reads.

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The suit alleges that Estes' account was "sanitized" on an injured-prisoner report. A copy of that report, which was included in the court documents, reads, "3 months pregnant, complaining of pain to wrists and stomach, handcuff marks on wrist. EMS responded to PPD, Estes denied medical attention."

The report was cosigned by a police captain, but not by the chief, as required by the state's injured prisoner statute, according to the suit.

The suit alleges that Wynn "never saw, reviewed or took action" on the report.

That sanitized version, according to the suit, demonstrates "the existence of a code of silence in the PPD."

Booking photos show visible injuries to Estes' chest, bruising in her stomach, and cuts and swelling on her hands and wrists. Other photos were provided to her lawyer, Hector E. Pineiro, but were completely redacted, according to the suit.

The suit claims that, during booking, Estes did ask to be taken to the hospital but was told that if she was taken, she would miss her court date.

She went to Berkshire Medical Center the next day for treatment of pain and bruising on her chest and wrists, and incurred $2,484 in medical bills, according to the suit.

After the Berkshire District Attorney's Office investigated the matter, it dropped charges against Estes.

Eason was fired in September 2016, after an internal investigation determined that he had falsified his report on the incident. But an arbitrator later ruled that there was not enough cause to fire Eason and ordered the city to reinstate him with back pay after he served a three-day suspension. The city appealed that ruling, but the state's Supreme Judicial Court upheld that ruling in October 2018.

Eason was reinstated to the department but immediately was placed on paid administrative leave until he reached an out-of-court settlement with the city in March.

He was awarded $85,000 in back pay and benefits and an additional $40,000 for agreeing to not sue the city, which did not admit any liability in the matter, and he was allowed to retire from the department.

The suit goes on to list other instances involving Eason and other officers, which it claims are examples of the department's failure to require accountability for use of force and injuries occurring in the course of arrests, as well as a lack of disciplining officers who violate policy.

Eason was involved in another arrest, in which an 88-year-old woman was injured while being taken into custody in June 2015, after he and his partner were sent to an incorrect address for a report of a disturbance. The woman was arrested, even after the officers had been made aware of the error, according to police documents.

That matter was settled for $143,000.

Another active federal lawsuit, naming Wynn and the city of Pittsfield as defendants, alleges that the civil rights of Gabriel Cordero, of Holyoke, were violated during a prolonged traffic stop and a search and seizure.

That suit seeks $30 million in damages.

Estes' case has been assigned to Judge Katherine A. Robertson. No hearing dates have been set in the matter.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.


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