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Black man accuses Needham police of racial profiling in January incident and town officials pledge ‘thorough’ probe

A Black man who works in Needham alleges that police there racially profiled him and held him for half an hour without cause when he was incorrectly identified as a shoplifter, according to a letter sent by his attorneys to Needham police Monday.

Marvin Henry, who works as a massage therapist at a Needham massage studio, said “his unlawful search and seizure” in January left him “extremely shaken and distressed” and that tight handcuffs — which he says he asked to be loosened — left his hands sore, making him unable to work for three days.

A spokeswoman for the Town of Needham, Cyndi Roy Gonzalez, said in an e-mail Monday, “The town takes these allegations seriously. We received the letter today and are reviewing.”

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Henry’s attorney, Lauren Sampson, of Lawyers for Civil Rights, said her client has seen no sign that any of the officers who detained him — including Chief John Schlittler — have been disciplined for the incident, and he has not received an apology.

“He doesn’t want this to happen to other people,” Sampson said in a phone interview. “He’s the father of four Black sons. He doesn’t want them to fear for their lives as they walk through the streets of Needham or any other Massachusetts town or city.”

Gonzalez released a more detailed response from Needham town officials on Tuesday, stressing the police chief was not involved in the incident and an investigation would be conducted.

“The Town Manager received the letter detailing the alleged incident Monday afternoon. While we are still reviewing the many facts alleged in this case, one thing the Town has determined is that the Police Chief was not on the scene during this incident. Given the magnitude of what is alleged to have occurred, it is critical that the record be corrected to reflect that fact. The Town takes seriously all allegations contained in the letter.”

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The statement continued, “Given current tensions and heightened awareness around issues of race and discrimination and policing, it is particularly imperative that we fully understand the facts before coming to any conclusions. The Town will conduct a thorough investigation into this matter and asks that the community withhold judgment until that investigation is complete.”

Henry’s letter follows a May incident in neighboring Newton, where Tim Duncan, a former deputy athletic director for external affairs at Northeastern University, was stopped near his home by police who said he resembled a murder suspect.

Sampson said the country is “in the middle of a national reckoning on police violence,” and Black Americans shouldn’t have to fear for their lives when they’re going to work or buying an iced tea.

“It’s a reminder of how vulnerable people like Mr. Henry are when they have these encounters with law enforcement,” she said.

Henry, who was not available for an interview Monday, felt humiliated as he stood handcuffed outside a Starbucks and watched a grandfather inside cover a child’s eyes so the child wouldn’t see him, Sampson said.

On Jan. 25, just after 3 p.m., Henry parked his Honda Odyssey on Highland Avenue, ordered lunch, and bought an iced tea and cough drops at a CVS, according to the letter from his attorneys. He was returning to his minivan when four officers approached him, one yelling, “Hey you, come here!” his attorneys said.

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The letter alleges that an officer shoved Henry against the minivan and that officers forced his hands behind his back and handcuffed him, though he was cooperating. The officers allegedly searched Henry, found no weapons, and refused to tell him why he was being held, according to the letter.

After roughly half an hour, a police sergeant told Henry that an employee at the CVS had identified him as a shoplifter based on video surveillance, according to the letter.

Henry asked to be freed so he could show the officers his CVS receipt, but the officers refused and instead asked that he open the door to his minivan, his lawyers wrote.

The police searched the minivan, then removed the handcuffs, according to the letter. Henry showed the officers the receipt, and they released him, telling him he would receive a summons in the mail, but he never received a summons and was never charged in the incident, according to the letter.

Police later refused to release the surveillance video, according to Henry’s attorneys.

The letter demands the release of any video or audio recordings, any other documents or materials in the case file, copies of the department’s policies on use of force and appropriate response levels to a call for service, and data on the racial demographics of people stopped by Needham police.

It calls for Needham to take steps to ensure that similar incidents won’t happen in the future, including enhanced training on implicit bias and de-escalation.

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It also asks the town for an apology to Henry and his employer, an independent investigation of the January incident, compensation for the emotional and physical harm Henry reportedly suffered, and payment of his attorneys’ fees. Sampson said she could not yet provide a figure for the amount he will seek.


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.