The dispute over a medical mask took place mid-pandemic, in a holding cell inside Lynn Police headquarters.
A 33-year-old Tufts University cook, arrested hours earlier for public drinking, allegedly refused to take the mask off, flouting police orders. Officer Matthew Coppinger responded with several punches to Victor White’s face, pinning him to the floor amid a flurry of blows, video footage shows.
“I instinctively put my hand up and I was struck with an elbow or a first on my head, neck, leg, stomach, and shoulder, and I yelled for help,” White said Thursday in Salem District Court.
The police station video footage and White’s testimony were focal points of a special prosecutor’s presentation Thursday to a clerk magistrate, who is considering criminal charges against the now former Lynn police officer.
“It’s clear from the video and Mr. White’s testimony that he was struck numerous times,” special prosecutor Daniel Bennett said. “The statute that allows police to use reasonable force does not allow them to strike an individual in the face in a jail cell.”
“Officer Coppinger knows he’s gone well over the line,” Bennett added.
White’s June arrest — and his alleged beating — sparked claims of racism and police brutality in Lynn, and resulted in Coppinger’s resignation and an investigation that’s now playing out in court.
The case has been shuffled among several court districts, with clerk magistrates in Lynn and Salem declining to take up the matter to avoid an appearance of favoritism for Coppinger, a Lynn native whose uncle, Kevin Coppinger, previously led the Lynn Police Department and now serves as Essex County Sheriff.
Clerk magistrate hearings are typically held behind closed doors, but the Globe filed an appeal and the hearing was made public. The hearing wrapped Thursday with no conclusion: Malden District Court Assistant Clerk Magistrate Paul Burns took the matter under advisement and will announce later whether criminal charges will be filed.
Coppinger’s attorney, Ken Anderson, said that his client was justified in striking White. White was drunk and belligerent, and repeatedly refused to comply with commands to take off his mask, he said.
“I suggest you have a volatile person who has his hand within inches of [the officers’] gun and knife,” Anderson said. “I suggest what happened here is in compliance with the Lynn Police Department’s use of force policy.”
Anderson suggested that White was looking for a “payday” via a settlement with the Lynn Police Department. No civil suit has been filed.
White shook off that claim in court, saying, “I want this officer prosecuted because what he did was wrong.”
Coppinger, who appeared in court but did not testify Thursday, previously told the Globe he was made a scapegoat by Lynn Police due to the “current environment around policing.” Coppinger is white. White is Black.
White and two friends were arrested last summer following a noise complaint about a housewarming party at White’s Lynn apartment complex. The men were charged with public drinking for imbibing while on their front stoop, as well as disorderly conduct, an arrest that one legal expert called questionable. All the charges against the trio were later dropped.
Coppinger was not involved in the arrest, and first encountered White in the police station holding cell.
In a police report, Coppinger wrote that White declined to take his mask off, then grabbed Coppinger’s wrist and refused to let go.
But Bennett said the video shows that’s not true.
“Officer Coppinger strikes him immediately in the face with his forearm,” Bennett said. “He wrote in the report that Mr. White moved closer toward him, but you can clearly see in the video that’s not what took place at all.”
Bennett said Coppinger should have taken other steps, such as restraints or pepper spray, in accordance with department policy.
“This is not reasonable force and the reason it’s not is Mr. White is in the cell, he’s been searched multiple times, he does not have a weapon, there are two officers... he can’t flee,” Bennett said. “Mr. White does instinctively push him back, but that does not give Officer Coppinger the right to smash him in the face.”
Bennett, the state’s former secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, was appointed special prosecutor by Essex District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett.