Public Safety
6:05 pm
Tue November 19, 2013

Teacher, ACLU File Suit Against Pittsburgh Police Officer Over Summer Arrest

Dennis Henderson (center) and the ACLU have filed a federal lawsuit against a Pittsburgh police officer following an incident in Homewood last summer.
Dennis Henderson (center) and the ACLU have filed a federal lawsuit against a Pittsburgh police officer following an incident in Homewood last summer.
Credit Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed a federal lawsuit against Pittsburgh police officer Jonathan Gromek, who last summer arrested a black teacher after a community meeting on police/community relations in Homewood.

All charges against Dennis Henderson were withdrawn by the district attorney, but Henderson said that the damage that was done can’t be undone.

“The irrational and over-aggressive actions of Officer Gromek placed unwarranted stress on my family,” Henderson said. “Mentally, physically and emotionally, it still lingers with us today.”

Henderson had just left a community group meeting June 26 that addressed community-police relations when Gromek, who was driving by, heard Henderson criticize his driving and stopped. Henderson was jailed for about 12 hours following his arrest.

According the suit, Henderson’s arrest violated his First Amendment rights by retaliating against him for recording the incident, his Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable seizure, false arrest and false imprisonment.

The stop happened shortly after Henderson left a meeting of the Community Empowerment Association, which seeks to address problems in poorer black neighborhoods. Among other topics, the group had discussed the lack of trust between some members of the black community and the police, particularly in high-crime areas like Homewood.

Henderson was speaking to a photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper that covers the city's black community. Both were standing in the street next to Henderson's car while he retrieved a business card and spoke about a teaching award he recently received.

According to the lawsuit, Gromek's patrol car drove by close enough that both people pressed against Henderson's car for safety, at which point the teacher said, "Wow!" — referring to the speed with which the officer was driving down a narrow street.

Gromek then turned around, stopped and confronted both of them and asked Henderson, "Do you have a problem?"

Henderson asked for the officer's name and badge number so he could file a complaint about Gromek's driving.

Henderson then began recording the encounter on his cellphone, which he handed to the photographer once the officer told Henderson to put his hands behind his back. The officer eventually handcuffed the photographer and allegedly refused to explain why either Henderson or the photographer were taken into custody, the lawsuit said. The photographer was never criminally charged and released minutes later.

The ACLU is filing the lawsuit on behalf of Henderson because, they said, this was not an isolated incident.

“What happened to Mr. Henderson is a symptom of what we see as a deeper problem of racial profiling and police harassment,” said ACLU Attorney Sara Rose. “Simply being a black man in a black neighborhood does not give police probable cause to stop you, but unfortunately too many of our police officers think that it does.”

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages, but Henderson said that’s not the sole reason for filing.

“I hope this lawsuit opens candid dialogue about racial profiling in our region, invoke action for change and provide compensation to my family and myself due to the actions of Officer Gromek,” Henderson said.

Henderson did file a complaint against the officer with the Office of Municipal Investigations. A letter he received from the office stated Gromek was found to have violated police policies. Gromek was pulled off patrol duty while the city's Office of Municipal Investigations reviewed the incident.

According to The Associated Press, Gromek could not immediately be reached for comment, but city police spokeswoman Diane Richard says OMI "sustained" the allegations against the officer — meaning they were found to be true.