Massachusetts police officer searching for white suspect arrested Black man instead, lawsuit claims

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This photo provided by Irina Danilova shows Donovan Johnson at Boston Common in Boston, 17 November 2019 (AP)
This photo provided by Irina Danilova shows Donovan Johnson at Boston Common in Boston, 17 November 2019 (AP)

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed on Wednesday alleges that a Massachusetts police officer searching for a white suspect pinned a Black man to the ground instead, placed a knee on his neck, and detained him.

The man, Donovan Johnson, was returning home from work in Arlington on a day in February 2021 when the white officer approached him, drew his gun and threw him to the ground face first. Mr Johnson was ultimately released without being charged with a crime, but not before he was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police cruiser.

The lawsuit, filed in Boston federal court, claims the officer violated Mr Johnson’s civil rights. Mr Johnson said the wrongful arrest was so traumatic that he struggled to navigate daily life in the following weeks and months and nearly lost his job as a grants administrator for an area hospital.

The complaint said Mr Johnson at one point screamed “I can’t breathe!” after the officer had pinned him to the snowy February ground with his knee, to no avail.

The complaint also argues that the police officer who confronted Mr Johnson had no reason to believe he was a person of interest in the crime he was investigating or any other matter. Arlington police chief Julie Flaherty declined to comment on the suit when asked by the Associated Press.

Police that day had been called to an Arlington hotel about a man who staff believed had previously stolen televisions. The man, who was white, was already known to local police for his involvement in other criminal activity, and a hotel clerk who was shown a photo of the man confirmed that appeared to be the same person they were calling about.

Police went to speak to the suspect in his room, but he escaped. According to the lawsuit, police were pursuing him on a street when the suspect reportedly ran past Mr Johnson. Moments later, officer Steven Conroy approached and told Mr Johnson and the suspect to “get the [expletive] on the floor”.

The suspect complied, but Mr Johnson remained standing. He was then thrown to the ground and remained in police custody until hotel employees told officers that they had never seen him before.

Mirian Albert, one of the attornies representing Mr Johnson, told the AP the case is emblematic of issues of systemic racism people face from police departments across the country.

“All people should feel safe in their own communities,” Ms Albert said. “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.”

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