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Former SEPTA police sergeant charged with assault for alleged violence during Black Lives Matter protests

Matthew Sinkiewicz, 36, was fired in July. The charges against him include two counts each of aggravated assault, simple assault, and recklessly endangering another person.

Protesters and police at the Rizzo statue in front of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia during a "Justice for George Floyd" protest on Saturday, May 30, 2020.
Protesters and police at the Rizzo statue in front of the Municipal Services Building in Philadelphia during a "Justice for George Floyd" protest on Saturday, May 30, 2020.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

A former SEPTA police sergeant is facing charges for allegedly repeatedly beating two protesters with a baton, requiring them to seek hospital treatment, during May demonstrations against police brutality and racial injustice in Philadelphia.

Matthew Sinkiewicz, 36, was arrested Thursday and charged with two counts each of aggravated assault, simple assault, recklessly endangering another person, unsworn falsifying, and official oppression, according to District Attorney Larry Krasner’s office. Sinkiewicz surrendered to SEPTA police Thursday morning and was transported to Philadelphia’s 15th District police station for processing.

The charges are related to an incident outside the Municipal Services Building on May 30, the first day of widespread protests in Philadelphia in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Sinkiewicz was among the law enforcement officers stationed near the contentious statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo, which has since been removed from the building’s plaza. There, according to Krasner’s office, he struck two protesters “without provocation” multiple times. Both protesters suffered lacerations that required hospital treatment, Krasner’s office said.

In June, SEPTA launched an internal investigation after learning that a transit officer had struck two people at a protest. Paperwork submitted by Sinkiewicz after the incident did not accurately reflect what transpired during his interaction with the protesters, Krasner’s office said.

Sinkiewicz, hired in 2015 and promoted to sergeant in 2019, was fired in July as a result of the investigation, SEPTA said.

“The civil disorder that occurred in Philadelphia on May 30 did not take away the responsibility of our member to follow the Transit Police rules and expectations for professional conduct,” said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III in a statement. “Our response to resistance must be appropriate, and when it is not, the member will be held responsible.”

Krasner’s office and SEPTA did not confirm the identities of the man and woman allegedly beaten by Sinkiewicz. Joe Rupprecht, 24, previously told The Inquirer he was bashed in the head with a baton while near the Rizzo statue on May 30. When asked about the incident over the summer, Philadelphia police referred The Inquirer to SEPTA.

The statue became a flash point for confrontation during the initial days of protest in the city. Demonstrators who gathered there said it represented the city’s fraught police-community relationship, and some used ropes, hammers, and a metal police barricade in attempts to topple it. They also tried to set it on fire.

» READ MORE: How Mayor Jim Kenney abruptly ended years of delays to remove the Frank Rizzo statue

Rupprecht told The Inquirer that police responded with force.

“They charged us. They were bashing people with their shields. They were picking up the barricades and swinging them toward us, just being really violent,” Rupprecht said. “Then out of nowhere a cop reaches over the line and bashes me with his baton. ... I thought I was OK for a second, and then I start seeing blood drip down my face and I’m hearing ringing in my ears.”

Sinkiewicz is the third police officer and first SEPTA cop charged with violence toward this summer’s demonstrators.

Joseph Bologna Jr., a high-ranking Philadelphia police official, was suspended and charged in June in the beating of a Temple University student and with antagonizing other protesters. Richard P. Nicoletti, a SWAT officer and 12-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, was also suspended and faces criminal charges after he was captured on video pulling down kneeling protesters' face masks and pepper-spraying them on I-676.

Sinkiewicz was also the subject of a controversial video that circulated in 2016 that showed him slamming a man to the ground at Frankford Transportation Center. He was disciplined but kept on the force.

Editor’s note: The following video contains profane language.

SEPTA would not release body-cam footage of the May 30 incident, said spokesperson Andrew Busch, citing the “ongoing investigation.” Sinkiewicz’s camera was on but didn’t capture the incident, he said. Footage from the Philadelphia police helped SEPTA in its internal investigation.

During that weekend and other large demonstrations, SEPTA police were assigned to “protect SEPTA property,” including stations, Busch said. Suburban Station, as well as 15th Street and City Hall Stations on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines, is located near the Municipal Services Building.

» READ MORE: Penn, Drexel officers’ presence on 52nd Street renews calls to defund campus police

The city in June removed the Rizzo statue from outside the Municipal Services Building and eventually erected a mural at the building’s entrance featuring Black Lives Matter protesters.

In the wake of the police response to protesters — including firing tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at demonstrators on a steep embankment on I-676, and on residential blocks near 52nd Street in West Philadelphia — the city has created a steering committee to spearhead reconciliation efforts and police reform.

In June, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw issued a moratorium on the use of tear gas to disperse crowds. City Council is now considering permanently banning it and other munitions, and lawmakers continue to probe the department’s tactics.

Last month, Council also approved measures requiring hearings on police contracts and prohibiting choke holds or kneeling on a person’s neck.