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Town grapples with alleged profiling incident

By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

On Saturday January 25, Marvin Henry was handcuffed outside of Starbucks, after being suspected of attempting to shoplift from the Highland Street CVS. His lawyers from Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston released a letter on July 20 accusing Needham PD of unlawful search and seizure, and actions that “raise concerns” of racial profiling and stereotyping, ending with a list of their demands. We now know one of those demands will be met (Mr. Henry’s lawyers will get the surveillance footage next week), but there are still many questions about the incident that have not been answered.

Essentially, the police report says Marvin Henry went into CVS along with an accomplice and filled a shopping cart. A CVS employee called 911, alleging that in previous months, Henry and his accomplice would fill a shopping cart, then leave with it full of unpurchased items. According to the police report, during the January 25 incident, Henry abandoned the cart when an employee started following him around, bought cough drops and iced tea, then left.

According to the police report, Henry was first stopped by L. Schlittler, then detained by Officer L. Schlittler and Officer Fitzpatrick because a redacted name recognized him and confirmed he was the suspect.

Outside of the video from this January incident, the police report also cited video of a Saturday, October 19 incident, and a Sunday, August 4 incident, both of which allegedly showed Henry in the store with an alleged accomplice. The October incident claimed to show him placing items in his alleged accomplice’s cart, who then left without paying. Most interestingly it is alleged that during the October incident, Henry bought a small number of items while his accomplice snuck out the door with the stolen merchandise.

As to the 911 call, it was recently released and features the employee first describing “one black guy, a big one, with a hoodie, a red hoodie, and black lady, black clothes,” before later describing the male as instead wearing “black, grey hoodie and a hat on it,” and declaring “the female is black, big one, too.” Later, the caller confirms “they left the carts here” when asked about the carts they had filled with items before abandoning them. It should be noted that the caller speaks in heavily accented English. This is not to pass judgement in any way; however, with racial language being so nuanced (think “colored person” versus “person of color”), it should be noted - though many media outlets have not done so.

Marvin Henry’s lawyers tell a vastly different story. They say Henry parked at Starbucks, went to a local pizza place, then headed to CVS to buy the iced tea and cough drops while he waited for his pizza. After he bought the items and left the store, he was handcuffed by the police with no idea why. The cuffs were too tight, which hurt his hands - something that could be a huge detriment to his job as a masseuse at Elements Massage. He wasn’t allowed to call his employer to explain why he was late. He wasn’t allowed to show the police the CVS receipt for the items. He wasn’t read his Miranda rights, and he was held for 35 minutes, just yards from his workplace, as many townspeople watched.

Interestingly, his lawyers say Officer Fitzpatrick promised he would go to Henry’s workplace and apologize to him in person, and when he asked for the surveillance footage from Needham PD on the same day, Mr. Henry was told he could not have it. Later, he filed a public records request for the video from CVS that the police claimed was used to identify him as the shoplifter. According to his lawyer's letter : "The Police Department responded on February 10, 2020 by denying Mr. Henry’s request." According to the response, the disclosure of Mr. Henry’s materials “would probably so prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement that such disclosure would not be in the public interest.”

In response to the incident, Mr. Henry’s lawyers wrote a letter demanding copies of any and all video or audio recordings of the incident, as well as any and all written materials relating to the incident, in addition to an apology to Mr. Henry and his employer, as was promised by Officer Fitzpatrick. The letter also demanded an immediate and thorough independent investigation of the incident in question, and compensation for the physical and emotional harm suffered by Mr. Henry.

There are a few strong differences between the police report, the 911 call, and what Henry’s lawyers say happen. First of all, one of Mr. Henry’s lawyers, Lauren Sampson, flatly told Hometown Weekly: “Mr. Henry did not ever fill a shopping cart with items on January 25,” and “our client wasn’t wearing a hoodie on that day. He doesn’t wear hoodies and wasn’t wearing one on that day.”

According to the police report, they have Marvin Henry aiding a shoplifting incident on video in basically the same way on three separate occasions, on three separate weekends. They have photos of the carts he filled, they have listed items he supposedly filled the cart with, they have a presumed CVS employees saying, "yes, that’s the guy." Yet, for whatever reason, even with all this supposed certainty, Marvin Henry isn’t even under investigation.  

When the paper asked if Needham PD ever found the supposed hooded sweatshirt-clad man that apparently filled a shopping cart inside of CVS, Sampson told Hometown Weekly: “My understanding is that the investigation into this alleged shoplifting is ongoing, but if someone has been identified, that hasn’t been shared with me. I do know that Mr. Henry is not himself under any kind of investigation, is not a suspect in the matter, and of course was never charged.”

Upon calling Needham PD, the paper was told to contact Public Information Officer Cyndi Rodriguez with any questions. While Officer Rodriguez did not address the part of the question about why the video hasn’t been released yet and why Henry wasn’t allowed to see it, she did inform the paper that “the attorneys for Mr. Henry will have the opportunity to review the video next week.”

When Hometown Weekly asked Public Information Officer Rodriguez if Officer Fitzpatrick denied making the promise of an apology, the paper was told: “Because the Town is still reviewing this matter, we can’t answer question 1 at this time.” Asked whether Needham police personally apologize to suspects who are detained but not arrested, Officer Rodriguez responded: “On question 2, the answer is no, the police do not, as a matter of course, seek out and communicate with individuals who have been suspected, but not arrested, charged or convicted of a crime.”

Marvin Henry wants that apology, and will not be satisfied with a letter or a phone call. “Mr. Henry, at the time of the incident, was told by one of the officers, 'if we’re mistaken about all of this, we will come to your job and apologize at your place of work so they can see you weren’t late through any fault of your own, and to do what we can to repair your reputation.' I know the apology is particularly important to Mr. Henry," Sampson told the paper. "Obviously, we’re living in the time of COVID-19, but I’d like to see the apology in that form or as close to it as we can get.”

While the apology demand is clear, the “compensation” is not. Asked what amount her client was looking for, Sampson said: “We haven’t asked for a specific number. What you see in the demand letter is where we are. We haven’t asked for a specific number, which again is pretty typical in these cases, not to ask for a number. It will be part of a conversation I hope we can have with the town.”

What about the gap in time from late January, when the event occurred, and the late July letter? Critics would point out that if you’re looking for compensation from a racial profiling incident, now’s a far more favorable time to do so than in January. Sampson, however, said the reason for the gap was unrelated. “Mr. Henry has been - which is not atypical in these cases, initially after the incident - really internalizing what happened … It wasn’t until he had conversations later with family members, his church and other advocates that he realized what had happened to him was unfair and unjust, and started connecting with other advocates who are pushing for racial justice in Needham, who in turn connected him with us.”

Those pushing for racial justice in Needham are very concerned with this case. While Sampson noted her law firm had dealt with issues of segregation and discrimination in the Needham school system a few years ago, both John Kirk of Progressive Needham and Noah Mertz of Equal Justice in Needham (best known for the R code placards placed inside Needham businesses) spoke about how concerning it was to just now find out that there are three Schlittler siblings working on the Needham Police force, with one supposed to effectively supervise his two brothers.

“If you have a police chief that’s directly responsible for overseeing his own siblings, how can that be objective?” Mertz noted.

Mertz noted that he wasn’t all that shocked to hear of the alleged racial profiling, but still deeply disturbed.

“When I heard about the Marvin Henry story, I was not surprised, but I was devastated and upset. I hate to say I expected that in Needham, but it didn’t surprise me, based on my experience growing up here and the stories I’ve heard from people of color here. To me, it was a call to action that this needs to stop. Something really upsetting about it was the similarity to the George Floyd murder. I think that’s really concerning. There were four police officers clearly abusing their force, over a black man, and I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say what happened to George Floyd could theoretically happen in Needham. We have some of the same use of force restrictions, like similar wording. So yeah, it’s absolutely distressing.”

It also wasn’t a huge shock for Mertz to hear the Highland Avenue CVS was involved. According to Mertz, there have been stories about the business from people of color in Needham for a long time.

“As far as the CVS, my understanding is that this is not an isolated incident," said Mertz. "What I know is that it’s common for people of color in Needham to warn one another the CVS in the Heights is notorious for racial profiling and people following you around in the store. What’s concerning for me is that this has gone on for so long, and that it is a known thing in our community that this store is not a welcome place for people of color. It’s unfortunate it had to lead us to an event where the police abused their power and detained a black man for forty minutes on the street for us to finally get to the point of confronting CVS about it and actually get something done.”

Interestingly, there are a couple of videos floating around YouTube of different Needham Police incidents in the same month. In one, Officer Fitzpatrick is accused of illegally detaining a person filming the WCVB studios, while in another from January 22, a Needham police officer continually responds to “sir are you a police officer” with “are you?”

It’s not apples to apples, and both sides of this debate will likely find something to confirm their suspicions in the videos. It is notable, though, to see that a Needham PD incident occurred involving some of the same officers in the same month.

Needham has announced they are going to hire an independent investigator to investigate the incident, but how that occurs is another big issue. Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick did not respond to Hometown Weekly's request to talk about concerns with the investigation, but Mertz has his doubts about the whole thing.

“Based on my understanding of the way the town operates, I have some doubts. I want to believe they will find someone impartial, but I will definitely be looking into it, scrutinizing it and being my own independent oversight. I think the town gets away with a lot because generally, the population doesn’t pay much attention isn’t paying close attention to what’s going on, but I think that’s changing. I think more people are paying attention and the more people pay attention, the more we can exert our own public oversight of what the town’s up to. We might be alarmed by what we find.”

The Marvin Henry case has Needham's full attention. We will see how alarming the truth ends up being.

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