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A clerk magistrate is considering 90 seconds of silent video from a police holding cell as he decides whether or not a former Lynn police officer should face criminal charges for allegedly beating a man in custody.
Matthew Coppinger, 35, is accused of assaulting Victor White, who was arrested on his front stoop last June after officers were called for a noise complaint and found him and two friends hanging out.
What happened in the cell is disputed by the two sides. Coppinger and his attorney, Ken Anderson, say the officer was just trying to remove White’s mask when White reached up to stop him and hit the officer’s arm.
White and the special prosecutor brought on to investigate, former state public safety head Daniel Bennett, say Coppinger struck White in the face without provocation and dragged the man onto the floor and repeatedly struck him.
In an unusual public clerk magistrate’s hearing Thursday in the law library of Salem District Court, both sides and assistant clerk magistrate Paul Burns watched the video in real time and in slow motion on a computer monitor propped up on a large cardboard box.
The video, which hasn’t yet been made public, showed White sitting on a bench in the holding cell, with Coppinger and another officer standing over him. Within seconds, the pair are on the floor, and Coppinger is seen striking White repeatedly.
Bennett, who was tapped by the Essex County district attorney to look into the case to avoid any conflict of interest, says Coppinger should face charges of assault and battery. His actions went far beyond what any use of force policy allowed, he said.
“This is unreasonable force,” Bennett said. “Mr. White is in a cell. He’s been searched two or three times. He doesn’t have any weapons. There’s two officers and one Mr. White. He’s not in a situation where he can flee. … That doesn’t give Officer Coppinger the right to smash him in the face with his forearm.”
The police report Coppinger wrote is inconsistent with the video, Bennett said. The officer said that White moved toward him first. But the video doesn’t show that. Coppinger wrote that he and the other officer “guided” White to the floor.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Bennett said. “They pulled him down.”
Anderson, the defense attorney, said White was obnoxious, drunk and belligerent. Coppinger wasn’t involved in the actual arrest, he said, but only helped with White’s booking. Coppinger had to remove the mask from White, he said, because he could use it to hurt himself. That’s when White reached up and pushed the officer, the attorney alleged.
Anderson said Coppinger thought White was going for his gun or a knife the officer had in his pocket. Frame-by-frame stills from the video show that White at one point had his arm around the officer’s thigh.
“Officer Coppinger has the legal right and duty to protect himself and make sure those weapons aren’t taken,” Anderson said.
In his questioning of White, Anderson pointed to one screenshot showing what he said was Coppinger checking that his gun was still in its holster.
“Either that or he was getting ready to shoot me,” White said.
After the hearing, White, in a Black Lives Matter mask, said it was the first time he’d seen Coppinger since his arrest, and only the second time watching the video.
“For them to tell me that I'm lying about what I'm telling the truth about — what's on the video — and you're still making excuses for this dude,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I'm over here trying to bring justice for myself against somebody who did something that was totally wrong, that [he] probably did to many other people that didn't have a voice, didn't want to speak on it.”
The charges against White and his friends who were arrested were later dropped by the prosecutor’s office.
Coppinger was a police officer for five years, and previously served in the Army in Afghanistan and Serbia. He’s currently working as a paramedic and in the Army National Guard. He was a fourth-generation Lynn police officer. Kevin Coppinger, the former Lynn chief and current Essex County sheriff, is his uncle.
The officer was put on leave by the department four days after the incident after the video was reviewed by the prosecutor’s office and his supervisors. He resigned 10 days after the incident, after the then-police chief said he was leaning toward terminating him.
Coppinger later tried to get his job back, saying he was pressured into resigning. But the civil service commission denied that appeal.
He did not testify at the magistrate’s hearing.
The case was initially reported by The Boston Globe last July. Clerk magistrate’s hearings, which decide whether there is probable cause for a criminal charge, are typically secret. But the Globe appealed and Burns opted to open the hearing to the media. No recording or photography was allowed.
Burns is expected to make his decision in the next few days.
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