A suburban Boston police officer who was pursuing a white suspect pinned a 20-year-old Black man to the ground as he was walking home and placed a knee on the man’s neck despite having no evidence that he was involved in any crime, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed Wednesday.
Donovan Johnson was minutes away from home after leaving work in February 2021 when a white officer who had been chasing the white suspect ran up to Johnson, drew his gun and threw him to the snow-covered ground face first, the lawsuit filed against the town of Arlington, Massachusetts, and three of its officers alleges.
The lawsuit says that the officer at one point pinned Johnson to the ground by placing a knee on Johnson’s neck. The complaint says Johnson yelled “I can’t breathe!”, but the officer “continued to pin Mr. Johnson to the ground with his knee,” while the white suspect police had been pursuing “was left unattended.”
The lawsuit filed in Boston federal court alleges that police violated Johnson’s constitutional rights when they stopped him, searched him, handcuffed him and placed him in the back of a cruiser before releasing him with no charges.
Johnson said in an interview that the incident took such an emotional toll on him that he struggled to manage his daily life to the point that he almost lost his job as a grants administrator for a hospital.
“I was wrongfully arrested and wrongfully searched just because of the fact that he thought I was the person that he was chasing down,” Johnson said.
Arlington Police Chief Julie Flaherty said in an email that police couldn’t comment as neither police nor the town had yet been served the lawsuit.
Johnson’s lawyers say an internal investigation found that the officers violated several department policies and procedures. One of Johnson’s attorneys, Mirian Albert of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said they hope the case brings systematic changes to eradicate racial profiling practices in the department.
“All people should feel safe in their own communities. Mr. Johnson’s rights were violated within view of his home and this is exactly the type of police misconduct that fuels the mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement,” she said.
Police were were initially called to an Arlington hotel about a man seen there who the staff believed was previously involved in the theft of televisions, the lawsuit says. The white man was “known to police” for “prior criminal acts” and when officers arrived at the hotel, officer Steven Conroy showed a photo of the man to the front desk clerk, who said it appeared to be the same person.
Police went to the room to investigate, but the man escaped and they began to chase him, according to the lawsuit. Johnson, who was almost to his Somerville home, saw the man jog past him before Conroy approached and yelled at both men to “get the (expletive) on the floor.”
The white suspect got on his knees, but Johnson stayed standing, the lawsuit says. After that, Johnson says Conroy drew his gun, threw him to the ground and pinned him down with a knee on his neck.
Another officer who arrived in a cruiser recognized the white man and put him in handcuffs, and the suspect told the officer he didn’t know Johnson, according to the lawsuit. A third officer who arrived “immediately jumped on” Johnson to help Conroy hold him down, according to the complaint.
Lawyers for Johnson say the officers had no reason to believe Johnson was involved in any crime: Police had a photo of the white suspect they were looking for, Johnson and the other man both told officers they didn’t know each other and “nothing in the investigation indicated that there was more than one male suspect involved,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint says Johnson was released at the hotel after its staff told officers they had never seen him before. Police left him to find his own way home, the lawsuit says.
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