After a Black Somerville man filed a civil rights lawsuit this week against the town of Arlington for his forceful detention by four white police officers in February 2021, community leaders condemned the incident but reaffirmed their support for the police chief’s handling of it.
In the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in US District Court in Boston, Donovan Johnson, who was 20 at the time, alleges the officers were chasing a white male suspect. But they stopped Johnson and tackled him to the ground as the white suspect, who had also been stopped, looked on. An outside investigator concluded in March 2021 that there was “no evidence to support that [Johnson] had committed any crime” before the stop.
The white suspect, who was “known to police,” was believed to have been trespassing at a nearby hotel when he fled, initiating the chase, according to the suit. Johnson was walking home from work in the early evening just over the border from Arlington in Somerville when that suspect ran past him, followed by Officer Steven Conroy, who proceeded to detain and tackle Johnson, the suit alleges.
In the lawsuit, Johnson says the incident left him traumatized, humiliated, and afraid that Arlington police will “racially profile” him again.
“He’s working through it, but it’s definitely had an emotional toll on him,” said Mirian Albert, a staff attorney for Lawyers for Civil Rights who represents Johnson.
Albert called the allegations shocking. “For us, this is the epitome of a racial profiling case,” she said in a phone interview Thursday.
Johnson could not be reached for comment.
The town’s police chief, Julie Flaherty, declined to comment on the lawsuit as it is an ongoing legal matter, but told the Globe in a telephone interview Thursday evening that she has taken the incident very seriously since she learned of it on social media a few days after it took place.
Flaherty stood by the conclusions of private investigator and retired Bedford police officer Michael L’Heureux, whom she commissioned to conduct an outside investigation shortly after the incident took place.
In addition to finding that Johnson’s detention was unjustified, L’Heureux concluded that officers failed to follow several departmental policies on handcuffing and jurisdiction — but there was no evidence of racial profiling, based on Conroy’s statements that he could not initially identify Johnson’s race in the dark and because no one said any racial epithets were used. L’Heureux also concluded that officers followed proper use-of-force procedures.
The department implemented all of the recommendations from the investigator’s report, which focused on retraining officers on various department policies, Flaherty said. The officers involved in the stop were disciplined, Flaherty said, though she said she could not specify how, and Conroy left the department early this year. The other three officers involved in the incident remain on the force, Flaherty said.
The suit names Officer Brendan Flynn, who helped Conroy restrain Johnson, and Sergeant Stephen Porciello, the scene supervisor, along with Conroy. One other Arlington officer and a Somerville officer were present when the incident occurred but are not defendants in the suit.
Johnson said he was not satisfied with the “transparency or outcome” of the investigation and filed the lawsuit to hold the department accountable, according to Albert.
Despite the national media attention the case is now getting, community leaders in Arlington have been aware of the incident for over a year. They said they remain appalled by the incident, but broadly support Flaherty’s response to it.
Zane T. Crute, president of the NAACP Mystic Valley area branch, called the incident a “bad, bad, horrible situation” but expressed strong support for the independent investigation Flaherty commissioned and the actions she took in response to its findings.
At the same time, Crute said Johnson was well within his rights to sue.
“Hopefully this improves policing in general for everyone across the Mystic Valley region: less people being assaulted by police officers and less people being profiled, better relationships between the police and members of our community,” he said.
In response to the lawsuit, Lenard Diggins, chair of the Arlington Select Board, echoed Crute’s sentiments.
“As with similar incidents near and far, the allegations will make us think more about the underlying issues that we face in our society and how we as individuals and a community can do better,” Diggins said in a statement.
Town Manager Sandy Pooler also backed the chief’s response.
“I believe in the Arlington Police Department,” he said in a statement Friday. “Its track record is one of balanced, honest and progressive policing.”
Johnson was walking home from work at Mass General Brigham on Route 16 in Somerville, which runs along the border with Arlington, just after 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 10, 2021, the suit says. After the white suspect ran past Johnson, Conroy drew his gun and yelled at both men to “get the [expletive] on the floor,” the suit alleges. Johnson was confused and did not comply. Conroy then tried to handcuff him as he protested that he hadn’t done anything wrong, the suit says.
Conroy tackled Johnson to the snow-covered ground and, in the course of trying to subdue him, placed his knee on Johnson’s neck, the suit alleges. Johnson yelled out “I can’t breathe,” it says.
After another officer helped cuff Johnson, officers stood him up, searched him, and confiscated his belongings, before releasing him about 45 minutes after the incident began, the lawsuit alleges. Johnson’s handcuffs were so tight they injured his wrists, according to the lawsuit.
In interviews with the independent investigator, Conroy said he detained Johnson because he believed he might have been the white suspect’s accomplice, and he denied drawing his gun or placing his knee on Johnson’s neck.
Attorneys who represented the Arlington officers in the independent investigation did not return requests for comment.
The police were “upfront” when they briefed the Arlington Human Rights Commission on the incident at the HRC’s February 2021 meeting, the commission’s co-chair Rajeev Soneja said by phone Friday afternoon.
The incident is “absolutely concerning,” Soneja said, but the independent investigation was “proactive,” “timely,” and “proved they were sincere about making sure the right things were done.”
“We still want to make sure ... [Johnson] receives the right justice as they should in this really serious allegation,” he said.
Rumors about the incident began swirling in Arlington, a town of 46,000, soon after it happened, said Laura Gitelson, a co-chair of Arlington’s Police Civilian Advisory Board Study Committee.
“What happened to Mr. Johnson was wrong,” she said. “I cannot even imagine what a terrifying experience that was for him.”
However, Flaherty did not try “to sweep anything under the rug” and has been very receptive to reform, Gitelson said. Still, some residents mistrust the police, she said, and the department has issues that must be addressed.
Johnson’s detainment came just a few months after another controversy roiling the town and its police force culminated with Lieutenant Richard Pedrini’s public apology in a September 2020 town forum for polemic columns he wrote in 2018 suggesting police should “meet violence with violence.”
The department has done a lot of work to regain trust in recent years, Flaherty said. “So of course when incidents like this happen, people will second guess their police department,” Flaherty said. “We learn from our mistakes, and we try to do the best that we can.”
Albert said Johnson’s mistreatment shows the department must try harder.
Johnson, she said, wants to “make sure that the officers involved are held accountable and that the department is also doing something to make some meaningful change ... to their training so that this doesn’t happen again.”