A Citizen Police Review Board hearing last night served as a window into Pittsburgh officer Jonathan Gromek's defense in a federal civil rights suit that claims he improperly arrested a teacher outside a Community Empowerment Association meeting last summer.
Critics of the incident "have absolutely no idea how officers are trained," said Bryan Campbell, Gromek's police union attorney. "[Officers are] given a lot of leeway when they're out there because they have to make split-second decisions [...] It will be our defense in federal court."
Those comments were made not long after a heated exchange with Rashad Byrdsong, CEO of the Community Empowerment Association.
"If you're not doing nothing wrong in your community, you have a right to stand up to law enforcement," Byrdsong said. "[Police] don't like citizens asking them why they're doing what they're doing."
Henderson, a teacher at Manchester Academic Charter, largely reiterated the version of events spelled out in his federal lawsuit: After leaving the Community Empowerment Association meeting on June 26, he walked to his car to get a business card for a journalist. The two men were standing near Henderson's car, when a police cruiser came speeding down Kelly street, almost striking them, Henderson told the review board.
The situation escalated after Henderson, in a loud voice, exclaimed "wow." Gromek made a U-turn and confronted Henderson, asking if he had a problem. Henderson asked for Gromek's name and badge number and pulled out his phone to start recording their interaction, according to Henderson's testimony.
Gromek put both men in handcuffs (though the journalist was quickly released) and Henderson was taken to Allegheny County Jail and charged with disorderly conduct, obstructing a highway and resisting arrest (the charges were later dropped).
Gromek was subpoenaed to appear before the review board on charges ranging from excessive force, to writing a misleading affidavit supporting the charges against Henderson.
He sat through the nearly four-hour hearing in council chambers, staring straight ahead, without speaking above a whisper to his attorney.
"He's here, but he's not going to testify," Campbell said.
In his closing, Jeff Ruder, the lawyer appointed to represent the CPRB's case against Henderson, argued "[Campbell] wasn't able to articulate any reason why Mr. Henderson needed to be arrested" — a sentiment echoed by several witnesses.
A three-member panel of the review board will deliberate and return a recommendation that could include disciplinary action to the mayor, chief of police and the public.
Their recommendation is not binding and it comes after the Office of Municipal Investigations found Gromek had violated bureau policy and the city appeared to settle on a written reprimand as the appropriate punishment, drawing criticism from both the police union and ACLU.
Beth Pittinger, executive director of the review board acknowledged the timing of the hearing doesn't give the CPRB a chance to offer meaningful input.
It's "one of the problems with the process," she said.
The CPRB's recommendation is expected January 28.