Cleon Hodge was walking toward the Porter Square T station on his way home from work last month, glancing down at a text message conversation a few minutes after 6 p.m., when he banged shoulders with another pedestrian.
“You gotta say ‘Excuse me’ if you’re going to try some cute [stuff] like that,” Hodge, 21, recalled telling the middle-aged man he’d collided with.
But the man was an on-duty plain-clothed police officer, Cambridge Detective Sergeant Thomas Ahern, and soon he was clutching Hodge by the sweatshirt while a small crowd gathered and a woman recorded the encounter.
Each man believed the other had initiated the contact — a fact of life in a crowded city, the type of encounter that typically ends in little more than mutual annoyance. But now Cambridge police are seeking assault and other charges against Hodge and a woman who tried to intervene, and pursuing a lesser charge against a second woman who recorded the incident with her cellphone.
The Oct. 13 incident and its aftermath, captured in four video clips by two bystanders, should raise serious questions about both Ahern’s handling of the situation and the resulting possibility of criminal charges, according to two civil right lawyers familiar with police abuse cases who reviewed the footage. Both were incredulous: How, they wondered, could what both men described as a minor collision between pedestrians on a crowded city street possibly be construed as assault and battery?
“How many times have any one of us been bumped into by someone who is not paying attention?” asked Rahsaan Hall, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Racial Justice Program, who reviewed the videos and Ahern’s account of the incident.
“This is the type of behavior and abuse of authority that erodes the public’s confidence in the police.”
Cambridge police spokesman Jeremy Warnick said the department and Ahern were prevented from discussing the incident because of the potential charges pending before a clerk magistrate. Ahern, who joined the force in 1993, has had five complaints lodged against him over the course of his career, Warnick said — all of which were dismissed after investigation. He has receieved numerous awards, including a 2013 Unit Ribbon Award for leading a Special Response Team during the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Hodge — who had charges from a February run-in with Boston police recently dismissed —
Donald Gosselin, a retired 30-year veteran of the Boston Police Department who consults with police forces in Latin America on police modernization and community policing, said the assault charge against Hodge would appear to be difficult to prosecute.
“I don’t see an assault and battery — you have to prove intent,” Gosselin explained. However, he added that if Hodge yelled at Ahern after they bumped into each other and created a scene, then a disorderly conduct charge would potentially apply.
The charge against the woman who allegedly touched Ahern’s arm, Gosselin said, hinges in part on when and whether the woman knew Ahern was a police officer. Such cases can be complicated when officers are working in plain clothes.
But the video, in which the woman appears to reach out with her left hand and contact the officers arm, “is conclusive evidence that the police officer was the victim of assault and battery,” Gosselin said.
Hodge and the two women appeared at a clerk magistrate hearing last week. Because two of the three defendants did not have lawyers, the matter was continued until December, according to Bill Merrigan, a lawyer who briefly represented the woman who Ahern alleges assaulted him by repeatedly touching his arm during the incident.
Last week, Merrigan said, he withdrew from the case, referred the woman — a family friend — to a criminal defense lawyer, and filed a complaint over Ahern’s handling of the situation with the attorney general’s office. The names of those involved were not released because charges have not been issued yet. Only Hodge and Ahern are clearly identifiable in the videos.
The videos do not capture what touched off the confrontation, and Hodge’s and Ahern’s accounts differ.
In a police report written two hours after the encounter, Ahern alleged Hodge made eye contact with him before bumping him in the chest with his shoulder and angrily demanding an apology.
“I walked up to him in an attempt to de-escalate the situation and identified myself as a police officer by displaying the badge which I carry on my belt,” Ahern wrote. Hodge, he wrote, replied with expletives that he didn’t care and continued to demand an apology.
“At this point I could see that his both hands were clenched into fists which I interpreted as a pre-assault cue,” Ahern wrote. “I grabbed him by his shirt and told him to settle down and give me his ID.”
Hodge, in an interview, acknowledged demanding an apology from the man who he said banged into him deliberately. But he denied being physically aggressive.
“Once I saw his badge, my hands go straight in the air. By my ears, straight up,” Hodge said.
The first video recording opens with Ahern gripping Hodge’s sweatshirt and Hodge’s hands in the air. Ahern reaches toward Hodge’s waist with his free hand, asking “What do you got in your pockets?” as Hodge backs away and moves his hips to avoid being searched. “You started this,” Ahern tells Hodge, who calmly tells Ahern that he was supposed to say “Excuse me.”
“Get away from me, you’re going to be arrested in two seconds,” Ahern shouts, apparently at the woman recording the confrontation, and then slaps at the phone, knocking it out of her hand. “I’m police,” Ahern says after she retrieves her phone, “Go away.”
In the second recording, which appears to pick up soon after, Ahern is confronted by a second woman who demands to see his badge. He shows it to the woman while maintaining his grip on Hodge, whose hands are still raised, the pair now backed into a doorway.
Hodge hands his phone, which he’d been holding aloft, to the woman and asks her to call the police. Ahern jerks Hodge around and shoves him into a brick wall, lunging with his free hand toward Hodge’s waist.
The woman asks whether Ahern has a warrant to search Hodge — though typically only probable cause is necessary to conduct such a search, not a warrant — and then reaches toward Ahern’s arm with her left hand. Physical contact is not clearly visible in the video because the woman’s body obscures her hand, but Ahern immediately says “Don’t touch me.”
Though the camera stays trained on Ahern and Hodge, a growing number of onlookers can be heard shouting to both men.
Hodge repeatedly asks Ahern to let go of him, as Ahern pulls him back into the doorway and pushes him against the wall and door.
“When you bumped by me, I said excuse me,” Hodge says.
“I didn’t bump into you,” Ahern says.
“Yes you did. Don’t lie,” Hodge answers. “Come on now. Be for real.”
“You’re being detained,” Ahern says, before being interrupted by another man who urges Hodge not to argue with the police.
The third recording shows Ahern still holding Hodge’s sweatshirt as Hodge asks why he’s being detained. Ahern declines to answer.
After another brief exchange, more police officers arrive and search Hodge’s pockets, at which point Ahern releases his grip. Eventually, Hodge is allowed to leave.
In his report, which broadly matches the video but differs in the sequence of some events, Ahern described feeling concern about the growing crowd.
“At this time I would estimate the crowd at about twenty people, most of who were outwardly hostile toward me,” Ahern wrote. Hodge and the two women were not arrested at the scene, he wrote, “so as to de-escalate the scene,” where a small crowd had begun chanting “Let him go.”
Later that night, Ahern wrote in his report, police received a call from Hodge’s mother, who alleged that Ahern had appeared intoxicated — something two onlookers can be heard saying during the videos.
At one point in one video, Hodge says he can smell alcohol on Ahern’s breath and accuses him of being drunk.
Ahern responds, apparently dismissively: “Oh, I’m drunk. OK. Yeah, you’re right. You must be right. You’re right. Yep. Yep.”
At the police station, Ahern wrote, he took a breathalyzer test — video recorded and witnessed by another officer — that showed he had not consumed alcohol.
Ahern issued summonses to Hodge and the two women by mail.
Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights lawyer who specializes in police abuse cases, reviewed the videos and praised Hodge for remaining calm.
“He was well-behaved considering this guy was grabbing him,” Friedman said.
He said allowing Ahern to seek charges was a mistake.
“It seems clear to me that [Hodge] thought it was an accident,” Friedman said. “It’s the kind of incidental stuff that happens to us because we live in cities. That’s not assault and battery. That can happen as you walk down the sidewalk.”
Jeanette Reynoso, Hodge’s mother, said the racial climate in the country has made her fearful for her son’s life.
Hodge this year had a charge of assault and battery against a police officer after he allegedly shoved a Boston officer who ordered him to stop skateboarding near a construction zone. The charge was dismissed after he wrote a letter of apology and agreed to eight hours of community service. He works at a Cambridge call center that offers fund-raising services for nonprofits and progressive political organizations.
“I’ve trained my son,” Reynoso said. “I’ve told him, don’t resist arrest. We’ll deal with it appropriately once the matter is resolved.”
She said the videos, in which Hodge clearly attempts to keep his hands raised, reflected that training.
“There’s been a lot of innocent lives that are lost going in your pockets,” Reynoso said.
Ahern, not Hodge, was responsible for the chaotic scene, said Hall, the ACLU official.
“He unreasonably escalates a situation that could have easily been avoided,” Hall said, and the crowd that gathers is plainly aware of the ongoing national conversation about how minorities — particularly young black men — are policed.
“It’s really unfortunate because this officer’s conduct is inconsistent with the legacy of Chief [Robert] Haas, who recently retired,” Hall said, referring to Cambridge’s reputation as an enlightened, progressive police force. “It’s a waste of taxpayers resources to pursue these matters in court.”