Pittsfield reveals $143,000 settlement over woman's botched arrest
PITTSFIELD — The city of Pittsfield has settled — for nearly $143,000 — a civil suit with a woman who claimed she was roughed up during a botched 2015 arrest after officers showed up at the wrong address.
For months, the city claimed that information was exempt from public disclosure. The Secretary of State's Office disagrees.
Correspondence between that office, Pittsfield officials and city resident Igor Greenwald, obtained by The Eagle, detail a five-month process to compel the city to release the information regarding the settlement.
Those documents show the city's insurance policy required the payment of a $7,500 deductible, which appears to be the only direct cost to the city. The rest was paid by the city's insurance carrier.
The settlement stems from the June 25, 2015, arrest of Phyllis Stankiewicz, who was 88 at the time, by two Pittsfield Police officers who had been sent to an incorrect address for a report of a disturbance involving a man with a bat.
The officers were informed of the error, but still took Stankiewicz into custody, injuring her in the process.
Her attorney, David E. Belfort, filed a demand letter with the city seeking up to $225,000 in damages.
"Although the officers did not have probable cause to detain or arrest Mrs. Stankiewicz, they insisted on lingering in the residence and blocked Mrs. Stankiewicz from safely exiting or walking past them," Belfort said in the letter.
"Roughly thirty-five minutes after these officers arrived ... Mrs. Stankiewicz was bruised, bleeding, handcuffed and terrified because she had just been roughed up and arrested at her own home," the letter reads.
News of the settlement came by way of that demand letter, which was included in an unrelated and still-open discrimination suit against the city, and was documented in an August 2018 Berkshire Eagle story. The discrimination suit was filed by Jennifer Brueckmann, one of the officers involved in the Stankiewicz arrest.
Greenwald, the founder of Civil Liberties Pittsfield, made a public records request to the city Sept. 19, 2018, seeking information, including an itemized list of payments made by the city or its insurer related to any claims of misconduct by its police officers.
The request cited a 2015 state Supreme Judicial Court decision that said legal settlements are not exempt from public disclosure solely based on confidentially clauses in those settlements.
By law, public records requests must be responded to in writing within 10 business days.
By December 2018, the city had not yet responded to Greenwald's request, prompting him to appeal to the Secretary of State's Office on Dec. 10.
The city responded two days later, claiming the requested materials were exempt from being publicly disclosed.
On Feb. 13, 2019, Greenwald filed a second appeal with the Secretary of State's Office, which, 12 days later, informed Pittsfield that the requested information was not exempt from being made public.
"The Public Records Law strongly favors disclosure by creating a presumption that all governmental records are public records," reads the letter from Rebecca S. Murray, the supervisor of records for the Secretary of State's Office.
In order to claim an exemption, Murray said, not only must the specific exemption be cited, but it must also be stated why that exemption applies to the information being sought.
On March 7, the city provided Greenwald a copy of the invoice from its insurance carrier, Woburn-based MIIA Property and Casualty Group, detailing the $142,489,50 settlement and the $7,500 deductible charged to the city.
The Eagle reached out to the office of Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer to explain why it did not respond to Greenwald's first public records request.
In response, Pittsfield City Solicitor Stephen N. Pagnotta sent the following statement via email, "The City provided Mr. Greenwald with all public records that were responsive to his requests."
Greenwald, who said he filed the request because civilian oversight of police is "vital to our democracy," pledged continued vigilance on behalf of city residents.
"The city's obstructionism in response to these and other legitimate public records requests highlights the glaring lack of transparency and sincerity from the Tyer administration on the crucial progressive issue of police accountability," he said. "Pittsfield's troubled police department deserves and will receive further scrutiny no matter how much the mayor, the police chief and police union officials dodge and weave."
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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