Pittsfield settles with 91-year-old who claims she was roughed up by police
PITTSFIELD — A dispatcher's error and poor judgment on the part of a pair of police officers in a 2015 arrest of a then-88-year-old woman ultimately led to the city quietly entering into an out-of-court settlement potentially worth up to $225,000.
The actual amount that Pittsfield paid to Phyllis Stankiewicz remains unclear. That figure is not included in the copy of the settlement agreement obtained by The Eagle through a Freedom of Information Act request.
The agreement includes a gag order preventing Stankiewicz, now 91, and her attorney, David E. Belfort, from discussing details of the settlement, apart from saying, "the matter is resolved."
When contacted, Belfort said he couldn't comment on the matter.
The agreement also prohibits Stankiewicz from filing a lawsuit against the city of Pittsfield, Police Chief Michael Wynn, as well as Jennifer Brueckmann and Dale Eason, the two officers who arrested Stankiewicz and took her into custody. In the settlement, the city admits no wrongdoing.
In response to a public records request Tuesday, Pittsfield City Treasurer Matthew Kirwood said the Finance Department had no documents detailing the specific dollar amount paid out by the city or its insurance provider to Stankiewicz.
Kirwood said he became finance director after the settlement was enacted and couldn't comment directly on it. He did say that, in general, those types of payments would be covered under the city's insurance policy.
There is a line item in the city's budget for "legal settlements," but in reviewing the budgets for fiscal years 2016-2018, there are no expenditures listed under that line item.
But there is a line item for legal fees and court costs on those budgets. In fiscal 2016, $80,000 was approved; $162,000 was requested and approved in fiscal 2017 and again in fiscal 2018, according to information from the city.
There is no specific information in the budget reports regarding the disbursement of that money or whether those expenses are connected to any specific cases.
Pittsfield City Council President Peter Marchetti, who was on the council in 2016, said he had no knowledge of the settlement between the city and Stankiewicz, but he told The Eagle on Wednesday that no settlement matters are brought before the council.
The existence of the settlement came to light while reviewing the civil suit brought against the city by Brueckmann, alleging gender-based workplace harassment and discrimination.
In that case file is the demand letter from Belfort and a deposition from Wynn in which he acknowledges that the case was settled, but provided no other details.
The demand letter extensively covers the background of the incident June 25, 2015. On that date, officers Eason and Brueckmann were dispatched to 57 Wilson St. for a report of a disturbance involving a man wielding a baseball bat. The dispatcher apparently claimed that the bad information came from the caller. City police found that wasn't true.
The police log entry from that incident includes a note that reads, "The RP (reporting party) erroneously stated she was in front of 57 Wilson St. She was actually in front of 57 Memorial Drive."
In an email from Mark Trapani — he is a Pittsfield Police captain but was a lieutenant at the time — to Wynn dated June 26, 2015, Trapani states that he listened to the call and the radio transmission regarding the incident. "The caller states that she is in the `Wilson Project...in front of number 57.' She does not say 57 Wilson Street."
Stankiewicz's neighbors told police there was no disturbance and no one was outside with a bat.
"Nonetheless, both officers proceeded to search the duplex (without a warrant) for a person with a bat and, not surprisingly, found none," according to the demand letter.
Stankiewicz asked the officers to leave, and they refused, Belfort said in the letter.
"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.
"Roughly thirty-five minutes after these officers arrived, 89-year-old Mrs. Stankiewicz was bruised, bleeding, handcuffed and terrified because she had just been roughed up and arrested at her own home," part of the letter reads.
Belfort disputed the accounts in the arrest reports filed by the officers.
"In their self-serving police reports, Eason described himself as a 'victim' of assault by Mrs. Stankiewicz by her use of "personal weapons (hands/feet/etc.)" and Officer Brueckmann identified herself as the witness to the assault," Belfort said.
Belfort acknowledges that Stankiewicz was carrying a paring knife, which she was using to peel apples when police arrived. Without asking for it, Brueckmann confiscated the knife without any resistance from Stankiewicz, Belfort said.
"At no time, did Mrs. Stankiewicz make any threatening gestures with the knife, nor did she hold it at Officer Brueckmann's stomach level as reported," according to the letter.
In the police report, Eason wrote that Stankiewicz kept approaching him with the knife until she "was just about sticking it into my stomach."
The letter goes on to claim that officers unlawfully entered without a warrant and had no probable cause to remain at the home after finding no disturbance or bat-wielding man, even after being informed that they were at the wrong address.
According to the demand letter, the officers blocked Stankiewicz's egress from the apartment and when she tried to leave, both officers grabbed her, "placed their hands on her without her permission" and refused to let her leave.
The letter claims Stankiewicz was trying to free herself from the officers when Eason was hit in the face with her open hand. He pushed her over, causing her to fall hard on her right side, causing injuries.
The letter claims that Eason ordered her up off the floor, then ordered her back down on the floor and put her in handcuffs, injuring her right wrist, causing it to bleed.
"The assault and utterly unnecessary restraint were extremely terrifying, humiliating and painful," part of the letter reads.
Even after receiving word of the error, the officers did not apologize and leave, nor did they release Stankiewicz, Belfort said. Instead, they took her to their police cruiser, "parading her handcuffed through the neighborhood she has called home for 60 years," with "full knowledge of their mistake."
Stankiewicz was treated at Berkshire Health Systems for bruises to her right ribs, right lower thigh, knees, multiple contusions, and bruises to her arms, as well as abrasions with bleeding to her wrists.
The demand letter claims that Stankiewicz "has not been able to enjoy one good night's sleep since the incident."
"She is haunted by the invasion," it reads.
Stankiewicz was charged with assault and battery on a police officer and arraigned in Central Berkshire District Court on June 26, 2015. On July 15, Pittsfield Police officers met with members of Stankiewicz's family. She did not attend, because she was "petrified" of police as a result of her arrest, according to the demand.
During that meeting, Eason and Brueckmann, who did not attend, were described as "toxic." The family was told that if any other pair of officers responded to the call, it wouldn't have had the same result, and the officers present apologized for the incident and arrest.
Internal emails from Pittsfield police, obtained by The Eagle, show concern about the arrest and the negative publicity it generated. A June 26, 2015, email called the incident "something that could tarnish the reputation of the department for years." There was also talk within the department about issuing a news release or public statement regarding the arrest, though that was never done.
The two officers who made the arrest each is embroiled in legal battles, neither of which is related to the Stankiewicz matter.
Eason's job status with the department is in the hands of the state's Supreme Judicial Court, after the department fired him for putting false information in a police report documenting a shoplifting arrest. The matter went to arbitration, the result of which recommended that Eason be reinstated with back pay and be subjected to only a three-day suspension.
The city has appealed that ruling and the parties are awaiting a decision from the SJC.
Brueckmann's civil suit is pending in Berkshire Superior Court.
Bob Dunn can be reached at email@example.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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