Copping an attitude: An officer’s overreaction leads to a lawsuit

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When Dennis Henderson, a 38-year-old teacher at the Manchester Academy Charter School, stopped to talk to another man at Mr. Henderson’s car after a community meeting in Homewood in June, a speeding police cruiser narrowly missed them.

According to a criminal report filed by Pittsburgh police Officer Jonathan Gromek, he saw Mr. Henderson in his rearview mirror shouting, so he turned around and drove back to the civilian.

Mr. Henderson, who is African-American, was upset about nearly being run over. Officer Gromek, who is white, asked if he had a problem with his driving. Mr. Henderson answered by attempting to document their encounter with his camera phone, but the officer tried unsuccessfully to take the phone away. Officer Gromek reported later that Mr. Henderson was becoming “visibly angry” and he arrested him.

The North Side resident was held at Allegheny County Jail for about 12 hours on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of highways. The charges were withdrawn by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., but not before Mr. Henderson had to deal with the humiliation of half a day in jail.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania and his own attorney, Mr. Henderson filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday, accusing Officer Gromek of violating his rights to free speech, due process and freedom from unlawful search and seizure. Meanwhile, the officer has been reassigned from Zone 5 to the warrant office, pending the outcome of official investigations into the incident.

Sgt. Michael LaPorte of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 1 insists that Officer Gromek did nothing unreasonable.

An aggressive police action such as this, however, with no charges that stand up against the civilian, is the kind of incident that fosters mistrust between police and residents of the city’s African-American neighborhoods. One of Mayor-elect Bill Peduto’s top priorities is a nationwide search for a police chief who, we hope, will work to counter such behavior.

In some ways, it is fitting that Mr. Henderson is a teacher. His lawsuit could provide city officials and police with a teachable moment for years to come. Pittsburgh can’t afford officers who believe their wounded dignity is the only law that matters.

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