A western Pennsylvania educator is suing a Pittsburgh police officer over
an arrest the plaintiff says was done in retribution for his criticizing the speed of the lawman’s patrol car.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania announced on Tuesday that it had filed suit on behalf of Dennis Henderson, an award-winning social studies teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School, who was arrested on June 26 moments after he left a neighborhood meeting that included discussions on how to better improve relations between the police and the community.
In his lawsuit, Henderson claims he and Rossano Stewart, a freelance photographer working with the New Pittsburgh Courier, were standing beside Henderson’s car to discuss the prior meeting when a city patrol vehicle sped by, allegedly causing the two to press themselves up against Henderson’s car so as to avoid being struck.
Henderson allegedly uttered, “wow,” in response to the close call, at which time Pittsburgh Police Officer Jonathan Gromek made a U-turn and pulled up next to the two, asking if there was a problem.
The plaintiff then asked for Gromek’s name and badge number because he planned to file a complaint about the interaction, the lawsuit states.
Gromek ended up arresting both men when he noticed that Henderson had been recording the encounter with his cellphone.
The ACLU claims that Gromek swept Henderson’s leg, causing the teacher to fall to the ground and land on his back and shoulder.
Stewart, the news photographer, was ultimately let go, the complaint states, but Henderson was made to sit in a jail cell for 12 hours.
“This incident illustrates the police harassment and racial profiling that too many Pittsburgh residents have experienced,” Reggie Shuford, the executive director of the ACLU of Pa., said in a statement.
Henderson, who is black, was initially charged with obstructing the highway, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, but the charges were ultimately dropped by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr., according to the ACLU.
The Office of Municipal Investigations subsequently determined that Gromek’s actions violated Pittsburgh’s police policies, conduct toward the public, and conduct unbecoming and incompetency, according to the ACLU.
“The withdrawal of the criminal charges and findings by OMI demonstrate that Officer Gromek abused his power,” Glen Downey, an attorney working with the ACLU of Pa., said in a statement. “People should be able to criticize police behavior and record their conduct without fear of arrest.”
In a statement issued by his lawyers, Henderson said that his goal was to show his 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.”
In his suit, Henderson claims his arrest violated his First Amendment right to record the police encounter and be free from retaliation for exercising his concerns about the officer’s behavior.
He also alleges violations of his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure of his person.
The complaint also contains state law claims of excessive force, false arrest and false imprisonment.
Lastly, the complaint alleges that the plaintiff’s treatment was motivated by his race, a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Henderson is being represented by ACLU staff attorneys Sara Rose and Witold Walczak, as well as attorneys from the firm Healey & Hornack.
The federal case number is 2:13-cv-01645-RCM.