Police face rights lawsuit filed over alleged racial profiling in ’21

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Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Donovan Johnson, 20, of Somerville, who was allegedly racially profiled by Arlington police in February 2021.

LCR filed the lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 3, with pro bono counsel Stephen Hall of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, naming the department as well as three individual police officers in the complaint, according to a statement reported by Boston.com. The suit alleges that Johnson was racially profiled, illegally stopped and arrested within view of his Somerville home.

Arlington Police Chief Juliann Flaherty told Boston.com she could not comment on the matter, because the department has not yet been served. YourArlington has asked for the counsel representing the department.

Call alleges white suspect

According to LCR, as reported by Boston.com, the incident occurred on Feb. 10, 2021, in the early evening, when Johnson, a black man who works as a grants administrator at Mass General Brigham, was apprehended by Arlington police officers while walking home from CVS.

Police received a call from Homewood Suites Hotel in Arlington about a white male suspect, “Kyle T.,” who was known to both the hotel and police for an earlier theft, according to LCR. When police arrived, the white male suspect ran from the hotel, and police officers chased him, Boston.com reported.

The white male suspect ran past Johnson. When police arrested the suspect, they also apprehended Johnson, despite knowing the man they were looking for was white, LCR said.

According to LCR, the suspect immediately and adamantly denied knowing Johnson, but police officers didn’t let him go.

“The white officer kept yelling for me to get on the ground while he held me at gunpoint, and he refused to listen when I told him that I was just walking home, and I didn’t know this other man,” Johnson said in the statement reported by Boston.com.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported Aug. 4, citing the lawsuit, that the officer who allegedly pointed his gun at Johnson and threw him to the ground was Stephen Conroy. He did not respond to a request for comment from The Post on Aug. 3.

Alleged attempts to silence

Citizens filmed the incident, catching Johnson telling the officers he was struggling to breathe, according to the LCR statement. One of the officers allegedly responded by jamming his fingers through Johnson’s face mask and into his mouth in an attempt to silence him, according to LCR.

Before releasing Johnson, officers brought him to the hotel for an unsuccessful witness identification, according to the statement.

“The Arlington Police Department’s misconduct then triggered an internal investigation that found multiple violations of department policies and protocols, but they failed to implement any meaningful change that would prevent Mr. Johnson’s nightmare from repeating itself,” Mirian Albert, staff attorney at LCR, told Boston.com.

The fact that the incident took place in sight of Johnson’s home meant that he didn’t feel safe in his own community, according to LCR.

LCR said it hopes that the lawsuit forces systematic changes in the department that would ultimately “eradicate racial profiling practices.”

“This is the type of police misconduct that is precisely what fuels the mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement,” Albert told Boston.com.

Days after the incident, The Post reported, Conroy wrote a police report asserting that a criminal database showed a link between Johnson and Kyle T., which was false, according to the lawsuit. Conroy also asserted that Johnson had been a threat, referencing a social media photo found after the incident, in which he said Johnson was holding a handgun, according to the lawsuit. The photo was of another black man.

According to his LinkedIn profile, The Post reported, Conroy no longer works as police officer.

Outside investigation

In July 2021, YourArlington reported the results of an investigation of this incident by an outside consultant. A 42-page report by Michael A. L’Heureux, principal of Bedrock Investigations of Bedford, provides evidence discounting that the brutality occurred but questions the actions of a town officer who pursued a suspect into Somerville.

The report also makes recommendations for police training, which Chief Flaherty says have been instituted.

 July 7, 2021: Outside investigator’s conclusions undercut brutality claim

This news summary was published Thursday, Aug. 4, 2022, based on information reported by Boston.com, The Washington Post and YourArlington.

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