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.



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