‘Talking while Black': Community calls for action over teacher’s arrest, photographer’s harassment

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CUFFED—Manchester Academy Charter School teacher Dennis Henderson and New Pittsburgh Courier photographer Rossano P. Stewart sit on the ground, after being handcuffed by a Pittsburgh police officer on Kelly Street in Homewood. (Photo by Elwin Green/Homewood Nation)

 

Tensions in the community are running high and leaders are calling for action after a Pittsburgh teacher was arrested and a New Pittsburgh Courier photographer were handcuffed at a community meeting in Homewood by a police officer who many said overreacted and was too aggressive.

 

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Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Micheal Huss and City Councilman Ricky Burgess talk to the public outside of Zone 5 Police Station after the arrest of teacher Dennis Henderson. (Courier Photo/J.L. Martello).

“Our position is that the police officer was wrong and provoked a situation by even turning around,” said Brandi Fisher, executive director of the Alliance for Police Accountability. “My concern is that our political officials and police officials admit that the police officer’s actions were wrong, unprofessional and unwarranted. We need to send a message that we have a zero tolerance for this behavior. All it does is cause a greater divide.”

On Wednesday, June 25, Dennis Henderson, a teacher at the Manchester Academy Charter School, and Rossano Stewart, a photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier, were leaving a Community Empowerment Association Inc. meeting held at the organization’s Kelly Street building, when they were allegedly harassed by Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Officer Jonathan Gromek. Henderson was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. He was released Thursday morning and will have a hearing on July 10. Henderson could not be reached for comment.

“The meeting was peaceful, it came to a good conclusion and this cop just turned it into a whole escapade,” said Stewart. “It was very unnecessary. The cop was too aggressive, more so than I have ever seen. I’ve never seen that kind of aggression, especially right away. It’s ironic, we were meeting about some of this stuff and then this happens.”

According to Stewart, he and Henderson were standing alongside Henderson’s vehicle on Kelly Street after the meeting, talking and exchanging business cards, when the officer traveled towards them at a rapid speed, almost hitting them. It is unsure if the officer heard a comment or saw their expressions, but Stewart said when the officer got to the corner, he made a U-turn, drove up to them and asked, “Do you have a problem with the way I’m driving? If you have a problem, you can file a report.”

Stewart said when Henderson began asking the officer for his name and badge number, the officer threatened them with a citation for obstructing traffic and then placed them under arrest and handcuffed them. He said the officer was verbally aggressive and even swept Henderson’s legs from under him to get him on the ground.

While the men were on the ground, Stewart said a crowd began to form and the officer called for backup. “Next thing I knew there were 10-15 officers and police dogs,” he said. “It got way out of control in a matter of seconds.”

Stewart said the cops were pushing individuals and even had their hand on their pepper spray, threatening to use it.

“I didn’t want a situation. I was afraid it would escalate from pepper spray, to them pulling out a gun.”

Stewart said after explaining the situation to an officer he recognized, a lieutenant, he was let go, but Henderson was not so lucky.

“I am more concerned for Mr. Henderson and this being on his record because he is a teacher.”

Vasilios Scoumis, principal of the Manchester Academy Charter School, where Henderson has taught for more than 10 years, said he did not know the details of the incident, but said he could speak to Henderson’s character. “He is family oriented, a role model, great with the kids, does the things we ask and goes beyond,” he said. “He is an all around good guy and we could not do what we do here without him.”

After Henderson was taken away, residents and community leaders, along with Pittsburgh Councilman Rev. Ricky Burgess, went to the Zone 5 Police Station to get more information and express their concerns. Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Mike Huss also joined them.

“My first concern was with the man who was arrested, supporting him and getting him out,” said Rev. Burgess. “These kinds of incidents are not random, they are just not (widely) reported. There’s a disconnect between some members of the police and some members of the community, and that disconnect needs to be addressed.”

Reverend Burgess said that unfortunately in many neighborhoods, “there is a belief that the police don’t respect them (the residents) and that they (the police) don’t act in (the community’s) best interest.” He also said that police often feel hated by some members of the community.

“As I’ve been saying, the best way to increase confidence (in the police) is through increased transparency, increased technology and increased training.”

Although a date has not been determined yet, Rev. Burgess said there are plans for a closed meeting between himself, those involved in the incident, the supervising officer, police staff and Elizabeth Pittinger, executive director of the Pittsburgh Citizen Police Review Board, to discuss what occurred, the police and community relationship, and what the community would like to happen. He added that depending on what happens from this meeting there may be a broader one.

Huss said the officer is still on the job and there is an investigation into the incident. He mentioned plans for the aforementioned meeting and said he thinks meetings going forward will be helpful to easing tensions.

Reverend Burgess did, however, credit Huss for coming down to the Zone 5 station to hear the community’s concerns.

Fisher said she has received support from several political officials, calling for an investigation, and is looking for the officer to be relieved of his duties. “He was abusing his power and used his position to arrest someone unlawfully. This is a prime example that once they (police officers) leave their supervisor’s sight, their public safety director’s site and their chief’s site, when they get in our communities, they become whoever they want to become. I am confident that this situation will be handled, that the officer will be held accountable and that we will see changes.”

Pittinger said the CPRB has reached out to the parties involved, they have opened an inquiry and that investigators are in the field now. She said the information that is gathered will be given to the board and they will decide in July what to do.

Pittinger also said she feels she’s getting consistent stories and that the important thing is making sure the parties involved are okay and that those who witnessed the incident are okay from what they’ve experienced, “because it leaves an impression.”

Rashad Byrdsong, president and CEO of the CEA, the organization hosting the community meeting, said, “What’s ironic is we were having a meeting on the adoption of an urban agenda and one of the topics was public safety and community and police relations. They (the police) weren’t provoked. We have to take a stand on this.” Like Rev. Burgess, Byrdsong, said incidents like this one happen frequently, they just aren’t reported. “If they’ll do this to professionals and leaders of the community, then they have no respect for the community.” Byrdsong and Stewart both stated that Byrdsong was also assaulted when he was shoved by an officer.

Byrdsong said he is planning several community meetings and has even looked into a class action lawsuit. He also said there are broader issues that need to be addressed from the city’s leadership, from the mayor and the public safety director, down to the council members, the police chief and the Fraternal Order of Police. Issues such as, the mental stability of some of the officers who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan; racial profiling and the stop and frisk laws; and the recruitment of Blacks, just to name a few.

“Out of the 15 cars (that were on the scene), only two of the officers were Black,” Byrdsong said.

While he would not give too much information, Zone 5 Police Commander Timothy O’Connor did say the incident is being reviewed.

While Stewart was not arrested, he does want a meeting with the officer and his superiors and believes he is owed a formal apology.

“Most of the (Pittsburgh) cops are nice. I’ve never had a problem with them and know some of them. But this cop was aggressive and needs to be reprimanded,” he said.

 

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