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Needham cops hit with lawsuit

Black man charges he was illegally searched, detained by officers

Morgan C. Mullings
Staff reporter covering state and local politics. Report for America Corps Member. VIEW BIO

Marvin Henry, a massage therapist in Needham, was allegedly mistaken for a shoplifter in CVS last year. On July 7, the Black father of four filed a lawsuit against the Town of Needham and the police chief for violating his civil rights.

The only thing he had in common with the man captured on the store’s security footage is his skin tone, leading to a very public arrest on the town’s main street, a handcuffing, and an unconstitutional search of his person, according to the lawsuit filed by Lawyers for Civil Rights.

“The officers treat this as ‘No harm, no foul,’” Lauren Sampson, lead attorney on the case, told the Banner.

Henry does not see it this way. Although the officers who arrested him last January verified that he purchased everything he took from the CVS and let him go, he is still listed in photos of the incident report on the town’s site. Sampson added that Henry’s dignity is still harmed by the incident that happened more than a year ago.

In a statement, Henry said he was concerned for his sons and feels a responsibility to speak out.

“As the father of four Black sons, my story is about more than just that day,” said Henry. “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,” he said.

The day after the incident, Henry made a public records request to learn more about the arrest. The city denied it under an exemption that protects investigatory materials compiled by law enforcement.

That’s when Lawyers for Civil Rights stepped in to send a demand letter to the town, which launched two investigations, one of which revealed several flaws in the NPD’s handling of Henry.

An independent investigation by Attorney Natashia Tidwell confirmed that there was an unconstitutional search of Henry’s person, the police report was faulty and the internal affairs investigation conducted by the Town was mishandled.

“That sort of seemed to be the end of it,” Sampson said. “There was no follow-through in terms of apologizing to Mr. Henry or his place of work.”

The letter from Lawyers for Civil Rights, as well as the Tidwell report, included calls for systemic changes for the Town of Needham and the NPD, such as proper training on implicit bias and de-escalation techniques, that have not been implemented.

“We also pointed to, for example, the data that was uncovered by Equal Justice Needham, which showed that police officers in Needham are disproportionately stopping [and] handcuffing people of color, particularly Black men and Latino men,” Sampson said.

In fall of 2020, the town formed the Needham Unite Against Racism Initiative, which also has made some key recommendations to the city surrounding wider concerns of racism. In their recommendations to the town this past April, they suggested a discrimination complaint process — something that could have helped Henry after he filed his public records request.

“The town has quite a bit of time to respond, and it remains to be seen, at this juncture, what their response will be,” Sampson said. “It’s possible that they might recognize that they’re really not in the right here. They may quickly move to settle, but they may also choose to fight this case.”

Needham police, racial profiling