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Needham police officers, town sued over alleged racial profiling during January 2020 arrest

A Black man who works in Needham on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the town, its police chief, and four police officers, alleging the police department violated his civil rights and racially profiled him during a January 2020 arrest for suspected shoplifting.

Marvin Henry alleges “four white officers of the Needham Police Department conspired to wrongfully accost, arrest, detain, publicly embarrass, and defame” him when he was suspected of shoplifting from a CVS before going to work as a massage therapist, according to the complaint, filed Wednesday in US District Court.

The lawsuit alleges that Henry’s “only crime” was being Black, for which he was “forced to endure unlawful arrest and ongoing public embarrassment not only at the scene, but in the days and weeks that followed, as the Defendants published false allegations against Mr. Henry and ‘investigated’ absurd possible crimes in the hope of justifying their misconduct.”

According to the lawsuit, on Jan. 25, 2020, Henry, who lives in Hyde Park, stopped at a Needham CVS to buy cough drops and an iced tea before his shift at Elements Massage. Before he entered the CVS, a Black man and a Black woman also went into the store, and a CVS employee told the store’s manager that he thought he recognized them from two previous shoplifting instances at the CVS and called 911.

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The officers that responded indicated that Henry was the suspected shoplifter, according to the complaint.

“The only way in which Mr. Henry matched the description of the suspect was his skin color,” the lawsuit alleges, but the officer “accosted Mr. Henry outside of his minivan and detained him.”

An officer handcuffed Henry and did not tell him why he was arrested, searched Henry’s pockets, and ignored Henry’s complaints that his handcuffs were too tight, according to the lawsuit. Henry offered to show the officers a copy of his CVS receipt on his phone, but the officers “did not immediately accept this offer, which would have dispelled any suspicion, and instead continued to detain him, ignoring the proof of Mr. Henry’s innocence,” according to the lawsuit.

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“Mr. Henry was humiliated, and he was concerned that his public detention — in full view of a busy Starbucks and the people of Needham — would affect his ability to get clients as a massage therapist by undermining his clients’ trust in him,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Henry would not have been mistreated in this way if he was not Black.”

The officers decided to release Henry, according to the lawsuit, but in the weeks after, two of the officers were “determined to find Mr. Henry guilty of some offense” and “conspired to pursue a follow-up investigation.”

One of the officers named in the lawsuit instructed another officer to investigate whether Henry was regularly stealing from the CVS and embezzling money from the store, the lawsuit alleges.

The town of Needham declined to comment, spokeswoman Cyndi Roy Gonzalez said in an e-mail.

“As the father of four Black sons, my story is about more than just that day,” Henry said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “I want my sons to have every opportunity - not spend their lives looking over their shoulders, worried they’ll be harassed, humiliated, or handcuffed because of the color of their skin. I know it is my responsibility, as a father and as a citizen, to stand up and speak out.”

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The lawsuit comes after Henry in July 2020 wrote a letter to the town that outlined his accusations and requested an independent investigation, an apology from the police department, and implicit bias and de-escalation training to ensure a similar incident does not happen again.

As a result of the encounter, Henry “is fearful every time he is in Needham, where he continues to work” and “continues to struggle with shame, fear, and worry for his four young children,” the lawsuit states.

Henry is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, coverage of attorney’s fees, the removal of an incident report posted to the town’s website that the lawsuit describes as “defamatory,” and training for all Needham police officers on implicit bias, de-escalation techniques, and report writing.


Globe Correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Amanda Kaufman can be reached at amanda.kaufman@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandakauf1.