Needham police report exonerates officers of racial bias

MORE THAN A year after a black man was handcuffed by four police officers near a CVS store in Needham on suspicion of shoplifting, the police department is finally getting around to acknowledging it screwed up – sort of.

A January 11 letter to Marvin Henry from Lt. Christopher Baker reports the Needham Police Department investigated five issues related to his arrest. On three of the issues, including racial bias, the officers were exonerated, meaning what they did was deemed “lawful and proper,” according to the letter. On the issue of use of force, the allegation was not sustained, meaning there was insufficient evidence to prove or disprove the complaint. On the fifth issue, entitled “arrest (reporting)” there was sufficient evidence to indicate officer misconduct.

No details about the vague language contained in the letter were provided and the Needham Times, which was the first to report on the letter, said there has been no announcement yet about disciplinary action, although the letter says the department has taken “appropriate action” where applicable.

Henry, a father of four from Boston who works as a massage therapist in Needham, said he had purchased an iced tea and cough drops on January 25, 2020, at the CVS and picked up lunch at a local pizza store when he was stopped by four police officers as he returned to his vehicle, a Honda Odyssey minivan. The officers were responding to a 911 call from a CVS store clerk reporting that a black man and woman were stealing items. 

The officers handcuffed Henry, told him to open his vehicle so they could search inside, and wouldn’t let him produce the electronic receipt for the items he had purchased. After a half hour of being detained, his handcuffs were removed, he produced the receipt, and he was allowed to go. He was not arrested.

Henry, represented by lawyers from Lawyers for Civil Rights and Wilmer Hale, wrote a letter to the town in July accusing the officers of racial bias and wrongful arrest and asking for an investigation and an apology. 

“The experience was humiliating as well as painful,” said the letter, referring to the handcuffs. “Mr. Henry believes that the false allegations against him, along with the highly visible nature of the incident along a main town street, less than 300 feet from his place of work, negatively affected his reputation in the community where he has worked for nearly three years.”

Lauren Sampson, an attorney with Lawyers for Civil Rights who is representing Henry, told the Needham Times the police report on its internal investigation was frustrating. “If this incident, which is a textbook example of racial profiling, doesn’t trigger the town’s bias policy, then what would?” she said in a statement. “This demonstrates why police departments cannot be relied on to police themselves.”

In the letter from the Needham Police Department to Henry, five officers were identified by their last names as being involved with the arrest. Four had been mentioned in a previously released arrest report — Leo Schlittler, Colin Fitzpatrick, Sgt. Andrew Cray, and Nicole McMahon. A fifth, identified as Kelleher, was not. Schlittler and Cray are the only ones associated with the arrest reporting complaint that was sustained. Schlittler is the brother of the Needham police chief.

Needham, a predominantly white suburb west of Boston, has released a series of documents related to the incident and in September hired Natashia Tidwell, a Boston attorney who is helping oversee reforms to the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, to investigate. Tidwell’s report is expected soon.

BRUCE MOHL

FROM COMMONWEALTH

A new poll finds students are unhappy with remote and hybrid learning and that black, Latino, and low-income students are those most likely to be studying remotely.

Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget says proposed drug price overcharging penalties would total $70 million.

A glitch has been resolved that was preventing immigrants with temporary protected status from receiving unemployment insurance benefits.

Opinion: Sherley Bretous of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge doesn’t believe teachers should be moved up in the vaccination priority line but should be among the first essential workers to receive their shots.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

A Pioneer Institute report says wealthy Massachusetts residents are migrating to lower-tax New Hampshire and Florida. (Boston Herald

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

At least 11 of 13 Boston city councilors seem poised to support a measure that would nix a mayoral special election this summer since a regular municipal election will take place this fall. (Boston Globe)

Mayor Linda Tyer of Pittsfield says the city is well positioned once the cloud of COVID lifts. (Berkshire Eagle)

The Falmouth board of health is investigating overcrowding claims at Smithfield Farm, a horse farm that has previously been in the spotlight. (Cape Cod Times)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Gov. Charlie Baker’s budget revives a proposal to tax opioid manufacturers. (Salem News)

Massachusetts passes 500,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. (MassLive)

State legislators from Western Massachusetts are calling for more access to the COVID-19 vaccine in the western part of the state. (MassLive)

Residents 75 and over are now able to get the COVID-19 vaccine, but still struggle to secure an appointment. (GBH) Nationally, even vaccines sites in predominantly minority communities are seeing a surge of white residents flock there for shots. (New York Times)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

President Biden plans to take a number of steps today to reverse policies dealing with immigrants coming into the country. (NPR)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s “loony lies and conspiracy theories” a “cancer” on the Republican Party. (NPR) A Globe editorial calls on Republican leaders to strip her of committee assignments — before the Democratic majority in the House is forced to do so. 

ELECTIONS

A post-election analysis by Donald Trump’s campaign pollster concludes that he lost reelection because of his poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (Washington Post

Boston mayoral candidate Michelle Wu says, if elected, she’d consider launching a city-owned broadband network. (Boston Globe

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

With February rent payments due, Massachusetts residents who are out of work say they are in dire straits in the face of delays in the state’s processing of a new round of unemployment benefit claims. (Boston Globe

Data indicate the number of small business startups is exploding across the US and here in Massachusetts, including in Fitchburg. (WBUR)

EDUCATION

Boston archdiocese Catholic schools and their superintendent, Thomas Carroll, get a shoutout from Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn for largely returning safely to in-person instruction this school year, while big-city public school systems continue with remote learning. In October, CommonWealth spotlighted the reopening of Boston area Catholic schools.

Elementary students in Milton will soon get more classroom instruction time. (Patriot Ledger)

TRANSPORTATION

A former Transit Police officer is indicted after he pinned a black homeless man down with his knee and filed a police report that was contradicted by a video. (MassLive)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

A new report by the state Department of Environmental Protection calls for more testing of homes, businesses, and streams around the contaminated former Varian site in Beverly, where neighbors have worried about toxic chemicals. (Salem News)

A Pennsylvania-based solar array developer agrees to pay $1.14 million to settle charges that it violated stormwater regulations at a solar farm in Williamsburg. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

The medical parole given to a convicted murderer in Springfield who was sick with COVID-19 is drawing criticism from the Springfield mayor and the Hampden County sheriff. (MassLive)

Dennis White is sworn in as Boston’s new police commissioner following the abrupt retirement of William Gross. (Boston Globe)

After dropping initially during the pandemic, the number of people incarcerated in Massachusetts is on the rise. (WBUR)

MEDIA

The Philadelphia Inquirer joins the ranks of several papers by removing its comments section.

PASSINGS

Scott Owen Long, a missionary from Hubbardston who started youth and children’s programs in Central Massachusetts, helped found schools in Albania and Kosovo, and worked on community development in Haiti, dies at 53. (Telegram & Gazette)

Hal Holbrook, the actor who channeled Mark Twain, at 95. (New York Times)