Teacher, arrested after meeting to improve relations with Pittsburgh police, says officer overreacted

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The arrest of a teacher in Homewood Wednesday night has drawn the ire of activists and politicians who worry the officer's aggressive manner will inflame tensions in an area where police and residents already frequently clash.

Dennis Henderson, 38, of the North Side, said the confrontation between him and Zone 5 Officer Jonathan Gromek, a seven-year veteran of the force, began with a disagreement about how quickly the officer drove past the car next to which he and freelance photographer Rossano Stewart were standing.

It ended with Mr. Henderson in the Allegheny County Jail, Mr. Stewart and others gathering at the Zone 5 station in Highland Park, and activists posting videos and photos that quickly gained traction online.

Some community leaders, including members of the Community Empowerment Association, which was hosting a meeting that night on several issues including police-community relations, raised race as an issue. Mr. Henderson and Mr. Stewart are black. Officer Gromek is white.

Now, both Pittsburgh officials and community groups are trying to find ways to improve the rapport between overworked officers accustomed to patrolling one of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods and residents who say they are skeptical of police and often feel bullied or racially targeted by them.

"I know our police officers see a lot of things daily. People are being killed. It builds up," said Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability. "We need to find the real problem and address the real problem. As much as I'm trying to bring my community closer to the police, every time I turn around there's something that's going on that pushes it back."

Zone 5 police Cmdr. Timothy O'Connor called Wednesday's encounter an "isolated incident."

"I understand the community is upset about this, but there is nobody targeting them," he said. "We don't have these things every day and it's a good thing. Hopefully, we don't have another one of these for many years."

Both he and Public Safety Director Michael Huss confirmed that the city Office of Municipal Investigations is reviewing the matter. They both declined to go into detail before Mr. Henderson's case makes its way through the court system or the OMI investigation is complete. Mr. Huss said officials plan to meet with concerned community groups.

The events in question unfolded shortly before 8 p.m. Wednesday, when Mr. Henderson and Mr. Stewart left the Community Empowerment Association meeting and walked across Kelly Street so Mr. Henderson could get a business card out of his car.

"I see the police car speeding up and I'm thinking he's in pursuit of someone," Mr. Henderson said, estimating that he thought the car was going about 40 mph. "I didn't know if he was going to knock us off our feet or hit us."

Mr. Stewart said, "There wasn't any traffic on the opposite side of the street so he had clear right of way to give us some street."

The two were surprised at the patrol's car speed and Mr. Henderson recalled that he said "Wow." They said Officer Gromek slowed down and made a U-turn.

Officer Gromek didn't respond to a request for comment but wrote in a criminal complaint that he turned around because when he glanced in his rear view mirror he saw Mr. Henderson shouting.

Mr. Stewart said Officer Gromek asked the two if they had a problem with his driving and whether they wanted to file a complaint against him.

Mr. Henderson said he asked for the officer's name and badge number. Each said the other one grew increasingly angry.

Mr. Henderson said he asked a passerby to watch what was happening. About that time, Officer Gromek called for assistance.

Mr. Henderson said he told Officer Gromek he was going to record him using his cell phone and that Officer Gromek then tried to take his phone. Mr. Henderson handed his phone to a man standing nearby.

Officer Gromek reported that Mr. Henderson was becoming "visibly angry" and "I believed he may have been trying to contact more people to come on scene which would prove to be a safety risk for me, so I instructed him to put away his phone."

Officer Gromek first placed Mr. Stewart and then Mr. Henderson into handcuffs and told them to sit on the ground. Mr. Henderson said that was difficult because his hands were bound and Officer Gromek forced him to the ground.

About that time, the community meeting the two men had been attending was ending and people came outside to watch what was unfolding. Officer Gromek wrote that he again called for back-up, fearing that a large number of people would be coming outside.

He wrote that at least 11 officers, including some with dogs, came to the scene. Some who were there said the number was close to 15.

Police took Mr. Stewart's information and released him with a warning about obstructing the roadway. They charged Mr. Henderson with disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstructing a roadway.

Rashad Byrdsong, president and CEO of the Community Empowerment Association, said he doubted Mr. Stewart and Mr. Henderson would have had the same encounter with Officer Gromek were it not for their race.

Councilman Ricky Burgess, who ran to the scene after a staff member called him, said, "This incident is a really small example of a much larger problem" and he will focus on trying to bring together community members and police for a discussion.

"Zone 5 is maybe the ... busiest of the police zones and it does patrol a large low-income community and they are understaffed and overworked and given that, unfortunately, and with the community's already lack of trust in the police ... these uncommon incidents unfortunately have big ripple effects."

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Liz Navratil: lnavratil@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1438 and on Twitter: @LizNavratil. First Published June 27, 2013 6:15 PM


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