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Police pursuing a White suspect detained a Black man instead, lawsuit says

Donovan Johnson in 2019. (Irina Danilova/AP)

Donovan Johnson was walking home from work in February 2021 when he says an Arlington, Mass., police officer ran up to him and told him to drop to the ground.

Confused, Johnson said he continued to stand as he asked what was happening. Then, Officer Steven Conroy pointed his gun at the 20-year-old Black man, threw him to the ground face-first and put a knee to his neck, a lawsuit Johnson filed on Wednesday claims.

Until that moment, Conroy and two other Arlington police officers had been pursuing a White suspect, the lawsuit says.

Johnson is now suing those officers and their town outside Boston, alleging they used excessive force and unlawfully searched and detained him — a result of biased policing, the lawsuit says. It demands unspecified damages and training for Arlington police on implicit bias, appropriate escalation and interactions with bystanders.

“The Arlington Police Department had no evidence that Mr. Johnson was involved in a crime, in fact to the contrary, witnesses informed the police that he was not involved,” one of Johnson’s lawyers, Mirian Albert, told The Washington Post. “Yet at the end of the day, he was humiliated and physically violated.”

Conroy did not respond to a request for comment from The Post late Wednesday. The Arlington Police Department also did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment. In a statement to the Associated Press, Police Chief Juliann Flaherty said the department hadn’t yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment.

On Feb. 10, 2021, a manager at a Homewood Suites hotel in Arlington called police because a White man who had been banned from the premises was in one of the rooms. The man, identified in the lawsuit as “Kyle T.,” had been suspected of stealing hotel televisions and using a room for “human trafficking,” the lawsuit says, adding that he was known to police.

When officers arrived, they showed a photo of Kyle T. to a front-desk clerk, who said he believed the man was staying with a female hotel guest, according to the lawsuit. When Conroy knocked on the room door, he heard a window open and suspected that Kyle T. had escaped from one of the windows. Conroy ran out of the hotel, saw footprints in the snow and followed them, beginning a chase that led into nearby Somerville, where Johnson lived, the lawsuit says.

Johnson was walking home from his job at a hospital and had stopped at a CVS. After leaving the store, he saw a man run by and Conroy approach, according to the lawsuit. Johnson asked what was happening, and the police officer told him to get on the ground, the lawsuit says.

“Still unaware as to why Defendant Conroy was yelling at him, Mr. Johnson froze in place,” the lawsuit says.

Conroy then pulled out his gun, pointed it at Johnson and grabbed his arm, the lawsuit says.

“I didn’t do anything,” Johnson said, according to the lawsuit.

That’s when Conroy, using a “takedown maneuver,” threw Johnson face-first onto the concrete, the lawsuit states. Conroy put his knee on Johnson’s neck, keeping it there even as Johnson said “I can’t breathe,” the lawsuit says.

Meanwhile, Kyle T., who had dropped to the ground, was “left unattended,” the lawsuit states. Another officer eventually arrived and detained Kyle T., who said he did not know Johnson.

A third officer arrived and jumped on Johnson, helping Conroy handcuff him, according to the lawsuit. As Johnson pleaded to be let go, that officer pulled down Johnson’s mask and then stuffed it in his mouth to silence him, the lawsuit alleges.

The officers then searched Johnson, removing items from his pockets, including a PlayStation controller, which was thrown onto the sidewalk. Even after Johnson insisted he did not know Kyle T., the officers allegedly drove Johnson to the Homewood Suites hotel and questioned the staff about whether they recognized him. When the staff members said they’d never seen Johnson, the officers let the 20-year-old go, the lawsuit states. Johnson said he had to find his own way home following the 45-minute detainment.

Days after the incident, Conroy wrote a police report asserting that a criminal database showed a link between Johnson and Kyle T., which was false, according to the lawsuit. Conroy also asserted that Johnson had been a threat, referencing a social media photo found after the incident, in which he said Johnson was holding a handgun, according to the lawsuit. The photo was of another Black man.

The lawsuit argues that the Arlington police officers ignored a wealth of information showing that Johnson was not a suspect. It also notes that the Arlington Police Department conducted a review of the incident, which found that the officers violated department policies covering arrests outside of Arlington, handcuffing and the seizure of evidence. The review recommended retraining.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Conroy no longer works as police officer.

“Our client’s rights were violated within view of his own home,” Albert, Johnson’s attorney, told The Post. “This type of police misconduct is precisely what fuels mistrust between communities of color and law enforcement.”