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

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Officials defend town in statement

UPDATED Aug. 14: 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 the lawsuit. The complain alleges that Johnson was racially profiled, illegally stopped and arrested within view of his Somerville home.

Read the entire complaint, filed Aug. 3, in U.S. District Court, Boston >>

In a statement Aug. 5, Town Manager Sandy Pooler and Police Chief Julie Flaherty responded to the federal lawsuit. “The Town of Arlington Police Department is committed to providing equal and fair justice to all its residents and visitors. It trains its staff to administer justice without regard to race and conducts ongoing training in diversity, equity and inclusion,” the statement provided by John Guilfoil Public Relations said. It continues below.

Call alleges white suspect

According to the LCR complaint, 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, the suit says. Details were first reported by Boston.com.

ACMi, Arlington's public television station, led off a recent newscast with its own account of the lawsuit. Its segment on the civil-rights case is nearly four minutes long and runs from 1:01 minutes to 4:51 minutes in the nearly half-hour video.

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.

The other officers named in the complaint are Brendan Flynn and Stephen Porcielli.

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. News accounts do not specify whether Conroy resigned or was dismissed.

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 said at the time were instituted.

Aug. 5 statement from the town continues

The Aug. 5 town statement added: "The town is aware of a suit filed on behalf of Mr. Donovan Johnson in regard to an incident in which he was stopped during a police investigation in February 2021. The town has not yet been served with the suit and only became aware of the suit from a press release and media inquiries. The suit alleges that Arlington officers engaged in inappropriate conduct toward Mr. Johnson during the pursuit of criminal suspects, including racial profiling, excessive use of force and other actions.

"The Arlington Police Department was previously aware of the allegations made by Mr. Johnson and had retained the services of an outside, licensed private detective to conduct an investigation to determine if the officers violated any APD policies, procedures, rules or regulations.

"A thorough review was conducted by the outside investigator, involving interviews of the officers, Mr. Johnson, witnesses and others as well as the review of documents and files, including video clips, incident reports, policies and procedures and radio transmissions. The investigation found no evidence to support a claim of racial profiling or excessive use of force.

Discipline cited

"The investigator did find that officers violated some department policies, and as a result of the outside investigation, three officers were disciplined, one officer and the sergeant received mandatory retraining and the sergeant received remedial supervisor training. The third officer later left the department.

"Additionally, four specific recommendations were given regarding training, retraining and policy revisions that were relevant to all members of the Arlington Police Department. All of the recommendations were implemented without delay. The independent investigator’s report was released with minimal, legally required redactions only. Chief Flaherty has pledged transparency in this process.

"The Arlington Police Department is a national leader in progressive policing, police legitimacy and policing as a public service. The staff, civilian and sworn officers are trained in procedural justice. They serve persons with substance use disorders and mental health issues in noncriminal ways. They use deescalation tactics and champion causes like restorative justice. Every department employee has been trained on implicit bias and ongoing, advanced training is planned for later this year."

Flaherty, Pooler comment

Chief Flaherty said as part of the statement: “I am very proud of the Arlington Police Department and the work our members have done and continue to do each day. We engage in professional and empathetic policing and have developed many programs to assist people with many different needs in the community. Some of our programs, including the Arlington Outreach Initiative, have been lauded by the White House and modeled nationwide.”

Town Manager Pooler added, "I believe in the Arlington Police Department. Its track record is one of balanced, honest and progressive policing. I am confident in the actions Chief Flaherty took to retain an outside investigator to conduct a thorough review of the facts and to act to affirm the training and standards upon which this department operates every day.”

The Town of Arlington statement said it plans to review the allegations in the suit and intends to vigorously defend itself against the allegations.

Town counsel to represent

In response to a query from YourArlington, Chief Flaherty wrote Aug. 8 that she cannot comment on the lawsuit beyond her official statement. As to who will represent the town in this case, she referred a reporter to Town Counsel Doug Heim. 

Heim issued a statement Aug. 8: "The town has been apprised of the lawsuit through the press, but has not yet been served.

"At present there are no hearings or other dates scheduled. It is critical to stress that these are allegations at the earliest stage of the litigation process regarding a matter thoroughly investigated by the town last year, as you previously reported.

"This office will provide for the defense of the Town of Arlington and provide appropriate, likely separate representation for the individual officers named in the suit." 


 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. It was updated Aug. 5, with a statement from the town of Arlington; on Aug. 7, to include a link to the text of the lawsuit itself; on Aug. 8, to clarify sourcing and to add comment from town counsel; and on Aug. 14, to include a video from local television on the subject.

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