CAMBRIDGE — A judge found a Cambridge cop not guilty of a charge of misconduct in office after a trial that ended Thursday, Oct. 7, in Dorchester County Circuit Court.
Pfc. Nicholas Gonzalez of the Cambridge Police Department faced the misconduct charge after detaining a woman during traffic stop while on duty in December 2018.
Judge Karen Dean said in her ruling that prosecutors failed to adequately demonstrate a “corrupt motive” to justify the accusation Gonzalez acted with malfeasance during the improperly conducted traffic stop, although she told Gonzalez the decision did not mean his actions were appropriate or that the woman’s account of the event and reaction to it was not legitimate.
Testimony from the woman, 25-year-old Madeline Fishpaw, and 29-year-old Gonzalez agreed that the officer followed Fishpaw in her car with his unmarked cruiser from McDonald’s, traveling west on U.S. Route 50, before pulling behind her car in the parking lot in the Dorchester Square shopping center. They both testified that Gonzalez activated his lights, approached the car, and then engaged in an exchange punctuated by Gonzalez asking for a hug, reaching inside Fishpaw’s door and opening it, and beginning to lean inside the vehicle.
Their testimony differed about when Gonzalez activated his vehicle’s emergency lights and how the interaction unfolded, with Fishpaw stating she did not know why she had been pulled over, and Gonzalez telling the court he made initial contact with Fishpaw before parking his cruiser and deactivating the lights before continuing what he considered to be a friendly interaction.
Fishpaw and Gonzalez, as well as other witnesses, including Fishpaw’s mother, testified the two had gone on one or two dates prior to the incident, and Fishpaw had declined an invitation to dinner from Gonzalez on Dec. 22. The prosecution also presented evidence of Fishpaw not responding to Instagram messages, although the two exchanged messages on Snapchat.
The traffic stop occurred around 1 a.m. Dec. 29, after Fishpaw left a downtown bar after not being needed as a designated driver for a friend, and amidst other duties Gonzalez performed while on uniformed patrol in his unmarked cruiser.
Gonzalez and other witnesses confirmed to the court that he did not follow department standing orders and activate his body worn camera during the stop or call the stop into dispatch with the location and the vehicle’s tag number.
Fishpaw said she did not know why she had been stopped and did not know it was Gonzalez until he spoke as he approached the car, at which point she said he leaned on the door into her open window. She said she asked why he pulled her over, and that he told her, “Because I can,” before continuing to engage her in conversation before opening her door and asking for a hug. Fishpaw said she felt fear and annoyance, thinking both that she just wanted to finish her drive home, but also fear. That fear escalated for her when Gonzalez opened the door. “I was scared,” she said of the moment she moved her shoulder to block his attempt to lean into her car. “I didn’t know what he was going to do to me.”
Gonzalez characterized the stop differently, telling the court he activated his lights as part of what he referred to as a “joke stop” before making an initial contact with Fishpaw and mentioning her license plate light needed to be repaired. He said he then told her he was going to park his car and deactivate his lights, “so no one would think you’re getting pulled over.”
He said he parked his cruiser in a nearby space and turned off the lights before leaning in on her door, continuing with what he termed a friendly interaction, before asking for and physically moving toward a hug. He said Fishpaw’s negative reaction was the first indicator he had that the interaction was no longer consensual, and he said he immediately physically backed away and left immediately when he was dispatched to a call.
Deputy State Prosecutor Sarah David emphasized Gonzalez’s own testimony in addition to other testimony and evidence, arguing the facts of the case the trial had established Gonzalez had demonstrated corrupt behavior in office by taking advantage of his police power as a public official to commit a wrongful act outside of his discretion. David said Fishpaw’s testimony that she was told he made the stop “because I can” illustrated Gonzalez took the action under the color of authority, but his other action of not turning on his body camera or radioing dispatch was a tacit acknowledgement he was acting outside of the range of his discretion.
Gonzalez’s defense attorney Chaz Ball said the crux of the case was a difference in perception, pointing to the two main witnesses’ similar description of events, particularly the way his client backed off when he realized the hug and the interaction was not welcome. Ball referred to his client’s testimony that he believed the interaction was friendly. “When he knew it was clear (that the interaction was not welcome), he went away,” Ball said.
Dean said while delivering her decision she too saw the interaction as being marked by a difference in perception, although in her assessment of the testimony of Gonzalez and Fishpaw, “Neither is wrong.”
She cited the extended delay in the official reporting of the event as a factor in her consideration. Fishpaw and others testified she told her mother and friends in the days after the incident, but no official report was made until about 18 months later. The delay involved a colleague who worked with Fishpaw at a sporting goods store, who was also a Cambridge Police officer at the time, Kason Washington (Washington now serves as an agent with Homeland Security investigations). Washington was one of the friends she told about the incident in the immediate days after the event, and Dean said the delay by a law enforcement professional caused her to question the existence of the level of corruption the state argued existed.
Dean said while Fishpaw was still clearly negatively impacted by the event, she did not see the “evil or wicked purpose” or the “depravity, perversion or taint” in Gonzalez’s actions, standards that accompany the misconduct in office charge she legally would have been required to read as jury instructions if it was not a bench trial.
After the initial official report was made to CPD, external assistance was requested to review the case. “Once becoming aware of the complaint and realizing the seriousness of the allegations against Pfc. Gonzalez, we decided it was best to reach out to the State’s Attorney Office, who in turn reached out the Office of the State Prosecutor,” said Capt. Justin Todd.
“Now that the criminal process has concluded we will pick back up on handling this investigation internally,” said Todd, who heads up the department’s internal affairs and operations department.
Gonzalez has been suspended with pay since shortly after the accusations of misconduct were made.
Mike Detmer is a staff writer for the Dorchester Star and Star Democrat based in Maryland. You can reach him at email@example.com.