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Black pastor arrested while watering a neighbor’s flowers, video shows

Michael Jennings said he’s considering a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the Alabama police department

Pastor Michael Jennings was arrested on May 22 after refusing to identify himself to Childersburg, Ala., police officers responding to a suspicious person call. (Video: The Washington Post)

Michael Jennings was watering flowers for his out-of-town neighbor in May when an officer approached him. Within minutes, he was arrested, handcuffed and in the back of a police cruiser, video released by his lawyer this week shows.

“I’m supposed to be here. I’m Pastor Jennings. I live across the street,” he told the officer during the May 22 exchange in his neighbor’s driveway in Childersburg, Ala.

“I’m looking out for their house while they’re gone, watering their flowers,” he added.

The 20-minute video captured his subsequent arrest. An initially friendly encounter with three officers escalated when Jennings declined to show identification, accused police of racially profiling him, threatened to sue and dared them to arrest him. After the two sides got into a shouting match, the officers did just that, accusing Jennings in the video of obstructing a government operation, a charge that was dismissed in June by a municipal judge, said one of his lawyers, Harry Daniels, in a statement.

The Childersburg Police Department didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Thursday. Jennings told ABC News he cooperated with police even though he was agitated because he feared being shot.

“To be shackled and to have your freedom taken away from you, it’s something else. It’s dehumanizing, and I thought, ‘Why would they be doing this?’ It’s something that — it gives you nightmares,” he said during the interview. Jennings, 56, has been a pastor at the Vision of Abundant Life Church for more than 30 years.

Jennings’s account echoes events in recent years in which police have been called on Black people engaged in everyday activities — grilling, swimming at a pool, viewing a home with a real estate agent, birdwatching or trying to get into their own apartment building. In one 2018 incident, a White woman in San Francisco threatened to call police about an 8-year-old girl selling bottled water without a permit. Such incidents led people to create the hashtag #LivingWhileBlack.

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The chain of events that ended in Jennings’s arrest started when one of his neighbors, not recognizing him, called 911 to report a suspicious person outside her neighbors’ house. The couple living there had gone out of town.

The body-camera video shows that, when the first officer arrived, he greeted Jennings with a “Howdy,” and Jennings replied by saying, “Hey, man, how’s it going?” It devolved from there.

The officer told Jennings that someone had called police to report a strange man around the house who was “not supposed to be here.” Jennings identified himself as “Pastor Jennings” and said he lived across the street. When the officer asked for an ID to prove that, Jennings balked, saying he hadn’t done anything wrong.

“You want to lock me up, lock me up. I’m not showing y’all anything,” Jennings said. “I’m going to continue watering these flowers. I don’t care who called y’all. Lock me up and see what happens.”

Alabama law allows law enforcement to demand someone in a public space identify themselves, give their address and explain their actions if the officer “reasonably suspects” that person has committed or is about to commit a felony or other public offense.

In their statement, Jennings’s lawyers said that their client didn’t have to provide police an identification because “he was not in a public place.”

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After declining to provide an ID, Jennings walked away. Officers followed and handcuffed him before the two sides got into a shouting match. The officer who first approached Jennings then began to arrest him, the video shows.

A few minutes later, after Jennings was handcuffed and in the back of the cruiser, the woman who called police came outside to speak with officers at their request, the video shows. She told police she did know Jennings, that he lived close by and that she wouldn’t have been surprised if her neighbors had asked him to water their flowers while they were away.

“They are friends, and they went out of town today. He may be watering their flowers. It would be completely normal,” she said, adding “This is probably my fault.”

Jennings’s attorneys said that the body-cam footage revealed evidence that cleared “the way for legal action against the officers.”

“This video makes it clear that these officers decided they were going to arrest Pastor Jennings less than five minutes after pulling up and then tried to rewrite history claiming he hadn’t identified himself when that was the first thing he did,” Daniels said. “This was not only an unlawful arrest. It’s kidnapping. It’s irrational, irresponsible and illegal.”

Jennings told ABC News he’s considering filing a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the department. Regardless, he wants to do something that prevents someone else from going through what he has endured.

“It’s been exhausting,” he told NBC News, “and I just really hope there’ll be some change.”

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