“You’re going to see people drawing their guns, all pointing their guns into my car.” Steven Cepeda is describing his terrifying encounter with Lawrence police after he was stopped in the lot of a pizza shop on April 14.
“Then a police officer on the righthand side—he starts bashing my window with a baton, trying to break in. That’s when I noticed they might kill me.”
In dealing with Cepeda, the Lawrence police opted to escalate a vehicle stop to the point of threatening to use potentially lethal force (while endangering bystanders and other officers) rather than identify themselves, then violently arrested and refused to provide medical aid for the victim of their aggression whose car they trashed and phone they smashed.
What violent crime did Cepeda commit to earn such treatment? He recorded video of a traffic stop and demanded that an officer tell him his name and the reason he was pulled over, then asked for a supervisor when the officer refused to answer his questions. In Massachusetts police officers are required by law to identify themselves.
Cepeda stopped in the parking lot of Pronto Pizza when a police van pulled in behind his vehicle and turned on its lights. Cepeda began taking a video of the interaction before officers even exited their van and recorded all but the end of it. A passerby recorded the end—leaving only a minimal gap. While some will argue that Cepeda was rude in his demands, it’s impossible to argue that the police response was acceptable.
According to a report filed by Officer Luis Olivo, who was the cop in the police van, he called for backup before even beginning the interaction with Cepeda because Cepeda was “saying that he was recording and that he knew his rights.” Olivo then approached Cepeda’s vehicle after backup arrived.
The video Cepeda shot shows that he requested several times for Olivo to identify himself, and that Olivo refused. This in turn led to Cepeda refusing to provide Olivo with his license despite a different law requiring him to do so. After both men reissued their demands to see ID, Olivo threatened to arrest Cepeda for failure to produce identification, so Cepeda asked to speak with a supervisor. Olivo’s report leaves out that his refusal to identify himself led to Cepeda’s refusal to provide his ID, and also omits Cepeda’s request for a supervisor.
While it may seem strange that a police officer would file a demonstrably false report that they know will be contradicted by video evidence, it makes some sense in this case because Lawrence police officers smashed Cepeda’s phone. If the smashing of his phone had destroyed the video—it didn’t—the police report would be left practically uncontestable. Plus it’s Lawrence, where the police chief has already suggested that he doesn’t care what misconduct a video shows. This isn’t the first time we have broken news about cops in that city attacking people who record them; the last time, Chief James Fitzpatrick lied outright about the incident despite the video.
In this instance, instead of getting to see a supervisor like Cepeda requested, the motorist was surrounded by police officers with guns drawn. (It is dangerous for police to stand in a circle around a vehicle and point their weapons toward the center because this puts the officers in each other’s lines of fire). They tried, and failed, to smash their way into his car while yelling contradictory instructions. One officer (with gun out) can be heard shouting, “Keep your hands in the air,” while another cop tells Cepeda to roll down his window. When Cepeda turned on his car so he could roll down his window, the police report claims that the cops thought he was attempting to flee and were afraid for officer safety—which is often grounds for killing unarmed motorists with impunity. The report also includes a description about how the officers couldn’t tell what he was doing with one of his hands, an excuse that in other cases has been used to justify the decision to use lethal force.
Lawrence police also attacked Cepeda’s property. They managed to lock themselves out of his car while it was in their custody, and despite his refusal to consent to any search, they ripped the handle off his front driver’s side door and did additional damage to Cepeda’s car. And, as previously noted, they smashed his phone.
After Cepeda allowed the officers to remove him from the car, slam him to the ground, injuring his face and leg, and arrest him without resisting, Lawrence police weren’t done. Cepeda says he requested medical attention, but that it wasn’t provided at first so he tried to explain how he knew that he needed medical aid. The police report claims that Cepeda was “talking nonsense” about all the various training he has—he is a health instructor and black belt—which led them to assert he was intoxicated. Seemingly in order to make the leap to probable cause for a drug test, the report omits the context in which Cepeda was explaining his training—he was requesting medical help.
After another officer spoke with Cepeda, the Lawrence police summoned paramedics and Cepeda was taken, with visible injuries, to Lawrence General Hospital. But discharge papers show that while LGH provided no examination of his injuries, and no treatment was given, Cepeda was drug tested. The police report describes Cepeda vigorously attempting not to provide a urine sample, but then says he provided one with no real explanation as to why.
Reached for comment, Cepeda filled in the missing details, “Yes, I told [Lawrence General Hospital staff] I was injured and they didn’t treat me. They just wanted to force me to piss. I had to go to Holy Family to get treated. I refused to give urine they said if I didn’t they would force it out of me with a tube in my penis … They surrounded my bed with, like, seven hospital cops and the [Lawrence police] cop and said if I didn’t give them urine, they will force me. So I gave in.”
There is no way to verify Cepeda’s claim that he was threatened with catheterization. Still his story jibes with the police report and discharge papers. Records that Cepeda furnished from his stay at Holy Family Hospital document the injuries that LGH failed to treat. We reached out to LGH about this incident and asked if they had any comments or policies specific to patients brought to them by police, or policies on forcibly catheterizing people for police. They refused to say if they had any such policies and provided no comment, but instead offered a boilerplate policy about how the institution respects all of its patients.
Cepeda says he was ultimately released on $40 bail after about six hours in police custody. He faces charges for refusal to provide his license, reckless operation of a motor vehicle, operating under the influence of drugs, and disorderly conduct. Cepeda says he was not under the influence of any drug while driving, but that he might have tested positive due to using drugs several days prior to the incident.
This article was produced in collaboration with the Bay State Examiner.