The teacher, 38-year-old Dennis Henderson, had just left a community group meeting June 26 that addressed community-police relations when Officer Jonathan Gromek, who was driving by, heard Henderson criticize his driving and stopped. Henderson was jailed for about 12 hours following his arrest. The Allegheny County district attorney later had police drop charges including disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
"Dennis Henderson, an award-winning Pittsburgh teacher, was arrested and jailed overnight simply for answering truthfully when a police officer asked him whether he had a problem with the way the officer was driving," according to the 12-page federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
Gromek was pulled off patrol duty in July and assigned to the warrants office, a common outpost for officers awaiting possible disciplinary action, while the city's Office of Municipal Investigations reviewed the encounter.
City police spokeswoman Diane Richard said the office found the allegations to be true and that Gromek is awaiting police department action. The lawsuit says Gromek received a letter Oct. 1 advising that the city had determined he violated three broad police policies: conduct toward the public, conduct unbecoming and incompetence.
Gromek does not have an attorney listed in court records and a home telephone number listed in his name was disconnected Tuesday. An attorney with the city law department did not immediately return a message seeking comment. Only Gromek is being sued, but the city may eventually have to defend Gromek because he was acting within the scope of his official duties.
The stop happened shortly after Henderson left a meeting of the Community Empowerment Association, which seeks to address problems in poorer black neighborhoods. Among other topics, the group had discussed the lack of trust between some members of the black community and the police, particularly in high-crime areas like Homewood, the neighborhood where the meeting was held.
Henderson was speaking to a photographer for the New Pittsburgh Courier, a newspaper that covers the city's black community. Both were standing in the street next to Henderson's car while he retrieved a business card and spoke about a teaching award he recently received.
According to the lawsuit, Gromek's patrol car drove by close enough that both people pressed against Henderson's car for safety, at which point the teacher said, "Wow!" -- referring to the speed with which the officer was driving down a narrow street.
Gromek then turned around, stopped and confronted both of them and asked Henderson, "Do you have a problem?"
Henderson asked for the officer's name and badge number so he could file a complaint about Gromek's driving.
Henderson then began recording the encounter on his cellphone, which he handed to the photographer once the officer told Henderson to put his hands behind his back. The officer eventually handcuffed the photographer and allegedly refused to explain why either Henderson or the photographer were taken into custody, the lawsuit said. The photographer was never criminally charged and released minutes later.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for claims including false arrest, malicious prosecution, excessive force and retaliation against someone for his speech.