Images via Donovan Johnson
Arlington Police had evidence that their suspect was not involved with human trafficking. That didn’t stop them from pursuing and detaining him
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article stated that former Arlington Police Department Officer Steven Conroy was arrested for the crimes of “strangulation” and “domestic assault and battery”; that these criminal charges were “later dismissed”; and that these charges were “seemingly overlooked” when Mr. Conroy was given an award, despite the fact that he was “embroiled in controversy.” Those claims are false. Mr. Conroy has never been arrested for those crimes, but rather he was the police officer who arrested a perpetrator for such crimes. We regret the error. The previous version also noted that a racial-profiling complaint to the Arlington Human Rights Commission made against former Officer Conroy “was reviewed” by the commission and “promptly dismissed.” Rather, the complainant was offered an opportunity to meet with Conroy, but instead “commented that the department had handled the matter to his satisfaction.”
It was a cold winter evening on Feb. 10, 2021 when 20-year-old Donovan Johnson was detained by officers of the Arlington Police Department while he was returning home from his job as a grants administrator at Mass General Brigham Hospital.
A few days after the incident involving Johnson, videos taken by passerby were released onto social media. In the footage, a clearly distraught Johnson protests his treatment and asks the people recording to call his mother as officers handcuff him, frisk him, and seize the possessions they find in his pockets. An officer then approaches one of the passerby filming the incident and alludes that Johnson is being detained in connection to a human trafficking case.
Soon after, human trafficking is brought up again by an officer holding a plastic baggie of Johnson’s possessions while offering a thumbs up to the camera as Johnson is placed into a patrol car (APD documents show he was put in the patrol car to stop him from being filmed further, with officers calling Johnson’s reactions to his treatment “grandstanding” and “theatrics” for the camera and one officer deriding Johnson’s request to have his mother contacted because “he is a grown man”). After Johnson is put in the car, another cop looks at the camera and exclaims while nodding, “Human trafficking! Thank god for the police!”
But the suspect the APD was actually investigating for possible human trafficking that night was a white man with a criminal record who the department was familiar with. They had a recent photograph of him in their possession, had several eyewitnesses placing him at a nearby hotel, and even had a physical description of what he was wearing that night.
Johnson, meanwhile, is a Black man with no criminal record whom no eyewitnesses placed at the scene of the alleged crime. Nonetheless, an APD officer stopped Johnson while pursuing the white suspect on foot after he fled a hotel room, running down the same snowy Somerville street where Johnson was walking home.
After Johnson was stopped, APD officers used force while handcuffing him and seized his belongings, allegedly without reading him his Miranda rights in an area outside of their jurisdiction. They continued to keep him in handcuffs and question him even after they detained the white suspect they were pursuing and that suspect confirmed he did not know Johnson. Johnson was then brought to the Homewood Suites in Arlington, the hotel where the alleged trafficking incident took place. There, the staff again confirmed not seeing Johnson earlier that evening.
Johnson was released 45 minutes later.
When Johnson posted the footage a few days later on his personal Facebook page, he wrote that one of the officers drew his gun on him as he approached, then threw Johnson onto the ground and “put his knee on my neck while my face was buried in the snow,” before the passerby arrived and began recording. The clips received a lot of local attention and were subsequently re-posted to several Arlington social media pages.
In response, APD Chief Juliann Flaherty hired a former police detective—Michael L’Heureux of Bedrock Investigations—to review the incident. L’Heureux’s investigation concluded that the officers violated some procedures—including failing to double lock Johnson’s handcuffs, which caused them to inappropriately tighten around his wrists.
More critically, the investigation found that the APD officers had not been justified in handcuffing and searching Johnson in the first place. In spite of that, the investigation ultimately “found no evidence to support a claim of racial profiling or excessive use of force,” according to an official statement posted on the Town of Arlington’s website.
During the investigation, APD officer Stephen Conroy—the one who first confronted Johnson—was placed on administrative leave for 35 days. As a result of the investigation, the APD officers involved in the incident received re-training and three were “disciplined,” though town officials would not elaborate on what that discipline entailed.
On Aug. 3, the nonprofit firm Lawyers for Civil Rights filed a civil rights lawsuit in Boston federal court against three of the involved APD officers—Stephen Conroy, Brendan Flynn, and Sgt. Stephen Porciello—on behalf of Johnson. Shortly after, Town Manager Sandy Pooler, who took over the position after the departure of Adam Chapdelaine this past June (Chapdelaine was not only Town Manager when the incident with Johnson and subsequent investigation took place, but also during another high-profile APD controversy concerning a high-ranking officer publishing racist columns in a police trade publication in 2018) released a statement to the press asserting his continued faith in the APD.
“I am confident in the actions Chief Flaherty took to retain an outside investigator to conduct a thorough review of the facts and to act to affirm the training and standards upon which this department operates every day,” Pooler stated in the press release.
But Sophia Hall, one of Johnson’s attorneys with the Lawyers for Civil Rights, believes the third-party investigator the APD hired was inappropriate for this case.
“[The investigation] was conducted by an individual who has a law enforcement background,” Hall said, referencing L’Heureux’s 32-year career as a police officer. “I don’t think the police should police themselves.”
Where L’Heureux worked and its ties to the APD also raises questions of potential bias.
Until 2019, L’Heureux spent virtually all of his policing career with the Bedford Police Department (BPD). He served the last decade of his tenure there under Chief Robert Bongiorno. Bongiorno is the husband of a high-ranking Arlington official, Christine Bongiorno, the director of the town’s Health and Human Services department. Prior to becoming the chief of the BPD, Bongiorno served as an officer of the Arlington Police Department for 15 years.
L’Heureux did not respond to requests to be interviewed, but public records requests filed for this article with the Town of Arlington revealed that there was no written contract between the APD and L’Heureux for the investigation. A town official explained in an email that the investigation was a result of a phone call between Chief Flaherty and L’Heureux, with the former asking the latter to perform a “Professional Standards Review on behalf of the Department to determine if any Policies or Procedures were violated.”
In reality, L’Heureux’s investigation often fixated on Johnson’s whereabouts the night he was detained, rather than the conduct of APD officers. For instance, L’Heureux devoted several hours of his research to reviewing surveillance footage of the CVS where Johnson said he bought a soft drink before officers stopped him, even though it wasn’t relevant to the case as Johnson was not a suspect in any crime.
L’Heureux’s report then based its findings ruling out racial profiling on the APD’s Policy & Procedures, which define “Biased Based Profiling” as the “selection of an individual(s) for enforcement action based solely on a trait common to a group” such as race. Many civil rights legal experts think this definition of racial profiling often used by police departments is problematic and can actually offer cover to officers who racially profile.
“The use of a policy that defines [racial profiling] as situations where the choice to stop and search, etc., is based ‘solely’ on racial or ethnic appearances effectively defines the problem out of existence,” said attorney David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and author of A City Divided: Race, Fear and the Law in Police Confrontations. “There is almost no situation in law enforcement that is based ‘solely’ on any one factor.”
The American Civil Liberties Union makes the same argument. Their website explains, “Defining racial profiling as relying ‘solely’ on the basis of race … would eliminate the vast majority of racial profiling now occurring.”
Recent legal precedent established in the Commonwealth seems to be more closely aligned with this understanding of racial profiling as well. In 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts lowered the burden for proving a police traffic stop was racially motivated. The ruling outlined that people stopped by police can use elements of how the stop is handled by police to make a case for racial profiling in court.
The summary of Johnson’s lawsuit describes a contrast in the behavior of the APD officers toward Johnson compared to others, stating Johnson “ … was treated differently from, and worse than, the white suspect who was actually being pursued.”
L’Heureux’s conclusion that the APD officers did not racially profile Johnson were primarily based on the involved officers not using racial slurs or epithets toward him during his detainment. (There are scores of examples of Black people being detained and even killed without provocation by police where slurs or epithets aren’t used—George Floyd being one very well known one.)
“It doesn’t matter that racial epithets weren’t used, and that’s obviously not a requirement [for racial profiling],” Johnson’s attorney Hall said. “Officers do need reasonable suspicion and probable cause to detain someone and they had none of those things with Johnson.”
In addition to the lack of reasonable suspicion to stop Johnson, Hall said there was “a desire by the officers to dig in, a desire to support or justify their actions,” after they detained him. In particular, Hall refers to the police report that Conroy filed on the incident a few days later where he continued to link Johnson and the white suspect, claiming that they were believed to be known associates on a database for police that follows criminal suspects known as CopLink. The database didn’t contain any such link, though, nor is Johnson featured in the database at all.
This is confirmed in L’Heureux’s investigation, where he notes requesting a copy of the CopLink file Conroy referenced in his police report only for Chief Flaherty to respond that there is no record and for her to express confusion about Conroy’s claims.
In Conroy’s police report, he also describes a social media image of Johnson with a handgun, though it was of a different Black man. Conroy goes on in the report to claim he thought that Johnson had a weapon to partially justify his use of force. No weapon was found on Johnson. Conroy concludes in that same report that the APD would be charging Johnson with both marijuana possession and intent to distribute, as well assault and battery of a police officer, though nothing in the recorded footage indicates Johnson had assaulted Conroy or the other officers. No charges ever materialized.
Despite the contradictions, L’Heureux did not follow up on Conroy’s erroneous claims in his police report, nor were they mentioned in determining the existence of racial profiling in Johnsons’s case. And while L’Heureux spent time assessing Johnson’s credibility, there is apparently no consideration of Conroy’s own personnel record.
Contacted for this story, Arlington officials said Conroy voluntarily left the APD in early 2022. In the meantime, Hall said the investigation and its outcomes fall short of delivering real justice for Johnson.
“Nothing about this young man warranted the terrible experience he had with the APD,” Hall said. “This is why we’re taking this action.”
This article was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. If you want to see more reporting like this, make a contribution at givetobinj.org.