PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania filed a federal lawsuit today on behalf of Dennis Henderson, an African-American teacher who was arrested and jailed for 12 hours after criticizing the speed of a white Pittsburgh police officer driving by. All charges against Henderson were dropped by the district attorney, and the Office of Municipal Investigations (OMI) determined that the police officer had acted improperly.
Henderson, 38, an award-winning social studies teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School, was arrested within minutes of leaving a community meeting in Homewood that included a discussion of ways to improve relations with police.
“I want to show my students that, regardless of your neighborhood, ethnicity, attire, age, or socioeconomic status, no one should be harassed, arrested and placed into the criminal justice system by a police officer who operates under a code of profiling, provoking and arresting individuals without just cause,” Henderson said.
Shortly after leaving the June 26, 2013, meeting, Henderson and Rossano Stewart, a freelance photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier, were standing next to Henderson’s car when a Pittsburgh police car sped by them. Both men pressed themselves against Henderson’s vehicle to avoid being hit, and Henderson exclaimed, “Wow.”
The driver of the car, Officer Jonathan Gromek, made an abrupt U-turn at the corner and pulled up next to Henderson and Stewart and asked, “Do you have a problem?” Henderson expressed concern about Officer Gromek’s driving and said he intended to file a complaint about him. Henderson then asked Officer Gromek for his name and badge number.
After noticing Henderson had begun recording the interaction with his cell phone, the officer arrested and handcuffed both men. Gromek ordered Henderson to sit on the ground. Before he had a chance to do so, Gromek used a leg sweep to cause Henderson to fall down on his back and shoulder and shoved Henderson’s head into the ground.
When additional officers arrived, Gromek let Stewart go but had the officers take Henderson to the Allegheny Jail, where he spent 12 hours in custody before being released.
“This incident illustrates the police harassment and racial profiling that too many Pittsburgh residents have experienced,” said Reggie Shuford, ACLU-PA executive director. “We are hopeful that the new mayoral administration will work to curtail these harmful practices and improve the relationship between the police and communities they serve.”
District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr., eventually withdrew all charges against Henderson, which had included obstruction of highways, disorderly conduct by means of unreasonable noise, and resisting arrest. In an October 1, 2013, letter to Henderson, OMI stated, “Based upon our investigation, Officer Gromek was found to have violated the following Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Policies; Conduct Toward the Public, Conduct Unbecoming and Incompetency.”
“The withdrawal of the criminal charges and findings by OMI demonstrate that Officer Gromek abused his power,” said Glen Downey, an ACLU-PA cooperating attorney. “People should be able to criticize police behavior and record their conduct without fear of arrest.”
According to the lawsuit, Henderson’s arrest violated his First Amendment right to record the encounter and to be free from retaliation for expressing his concerns about the officer’s behavior, and his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure of his person, excessive force, false arrest, and false imprisonment. The suit also alleges that Henderson’s treatment was motivated by his race, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
The case isHenderson v. Gromek. Henderson is represented by Sara Rose and Witold Walczak of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, Downey of Healey & Hornack, P.C., and James Love.
More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: www.aclupa.org/henderson