A meeting intended to improve police-community relations in Pittsburgh ended on Wednesday with a black teacher being arrested by a white officer.
Dennis Henderson, 38, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazzette that he had left the Community Empowerment Association meeting to get a business card out of his car when he was shocked to observe how fast Zone 5 Officer Jonathan Gromek was driving.
“I see the police car speeding up and I’m thinking he’s in pursuit of someone,” Henderson recalled, guessing that the cruiser must have been going around 40 mph. “I didn’t know if he was going to knock us off our feet or hit us.”
Henderson said that Gromek did a U-turn after apparently hearing him exclaim “Wow!” at the officer’s driving.
A criminal complaint obtained by the Post-Gazette indicated that Gromek had seen Henderson shouting in his rearview mirror.
Gromek reportedly confronted Henderson and asked him if he wanted to file a complaint. Henderson asked for the the officer’s name and badge number, and began recording the encounter on his cell phone. Henderson stated that Gromek tried to confiscate the phone so he passed it off to a person witnessing the encounter.
“I believed he may have been trying to contact more people to come on scene which would prove to be a safety risk for me, so I instructed him to put away his phone,” Gromek wrote in the complaint.
That’s when Gromek handcuffed Henderson and an associate, freelance photographer Rossano Stewart, and forced them to sit on the ground. By that time, others attending the Community Empowerment Association meeting had come outside to witness the confrontation.
Gromek then decided that the growing number of people posed a danger to his safety and called for backup.
“It was threatening to us, 15 police cars, four dogs, hands on the mace, hands on the guns,” Community Empowerment Association CEO Rashad Byrdsong told KDKA. “We were the ones in fear of our life, not them.”
Byrdsong said that Henderson and Stewart probably would not have been handcuffed if they had not been black.
“Out of the 15 cars, only two of the officers were black,” he explained to the New Pittsburgh Courier.
Henderson spent the night in jail on charges of disorderly conduct. He was released on Thursday morning and expected back in court on July 10. Stewart was not arrested.
It was not immediately clear if the charges would impact Henderson’s teaching job, but Manchester Academy Charter School Principal Vasilios Scoumis said that he could vouch for his character.
“He is family oriented, a role model, great with the kids, does the things we ask and goes beyond,” Scoumis told the Courier. “He is an all around good guy and we could not do what we do here without him.”
Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss said that Officer Gromek would remain on duty pending the outcome of an investigation.
Watch this video from KDKA, broadcast June 27, 2013.