Police body camera footage shows the arrest of Michael Jennings, a Black pastor in Alabama, United States who claims that he was wrongly arrested while watering his neighbour’s flowers.
It was starting to get dark in Childersburg, Ala., on May 22, so the Rev. Michael Jennings figured it was a good time to water the purple petunias and hydrangeas for his neighbor up the street, who was vacationing in the mountains up north.
Mr. Jennings, 56 and a pastor of 31 years, said by phone on Tuesday that he had done this many times over his seven years in the neighborhood on Sixth Avenue, just a few blocks from the Childersburg Police Department.
At about 6 p.m., a police vehicle drove slowly past the neighbor’s house and parked beside it. Mr. Jennings, who is Black, recalled saying to himself, “Here we go.” Then, according to body camera footage, Mr. Jennings was approached by an officer who asked him, “What you doing here, man?”
“Watering flowers,” Mr. Jennings replies, holding a hose.
He tells the officer that he is “Pastor Jennings” and lives across the street, and the officer asks him to provide identification, the footage shows. But Mr. Jennings refuses, saying that he had done nothing wrong and that he was being racially profiled, according to the video.
About 10 minutes later, he was arrested near his neighbor’s white porch and charged with “obstructing government operations,” a charge that was eventually dropped after local prosecutors and the police realized that Mr. Jennings had not broken any law that evening, according to his lawyer, Harry Daniels. He released the body camera footage last week.
“This is a case of police abuse, police intimidation and racial profiling,” Mr. Daniels said by phone on Tuesday. “Pastor Jennings was arrested illegally, and he was taken away from his family unlawfully.”
Mr. Jennings and Mr. Daniels said they planned to file a lawsuit next week, but did not specify who would be named as defendants.
“I’m not anti-police,” Mr. Jennings said. “We need our police. We just need good police.”
As news of Mr. Jennings’s arrest spread widely on Tuesday, prompted in part by a report by NPR, the Childersburg Police Department and its interim police chief, Kevin Koss, did not immediately respond to emails and calls seeking comment on Tuesday night.
The sergeant who responded to the scene, identified in the police incident report as Jeremy Brooks, could not be immediately reached for comment. Phone calls placed to numbers listed as belonging to him were not returned on Tuesday night. The names of the two other police officers involved in the arrest were not immediately clear.
The arrest of Mr. Jennings in a city of roughly 5,000, about 40 miles southeast of Birmingham, came as police relations in many communities across the United States continue to be scrutinized, particularly in cases involving Black people. And Mr. Daniels said the episode underscored the fear that Black people and other people of color have of being racially profiled.
A call from a neighbor, Amanda, whose last name is not listed in the arrest report, prompted the encounter. She had reported “suspicious activity” at the home, according to Mr. Daniels.
Earlier this year, Amanda had invited Mr. Jennings, whose congregation at Vision of Abundant Life Church in Sylacauga comprises about 20 people, to her son’s graduation party later in the summer, Mr. Jennings said. But she appeared to not recognize him that day as he watered the flowers.
After Mr. Jennings was placed in handcuffs and put in the back of a police car, the body camera footage shows Amanda telling the officers that he lives in the neighborhood and that it was normal for him to be watering flowers at that time.
“This is probably my fault,” she tells officers.
Recently, Mr. Jennings asked Amanda if she could speak with local news outlets about what happened that day. But her husband, Mr. Jennings said, later responded via text: “My wife is not going to have anything to do with this. We’re sorry about what happened.”
“That kind of shocked me,” Mr. Jennings said.
A call to a phone number listed in the incident report as belonging to Amanda seeking comment was not returned on Tuesday night.
The officers eventually drove Mr. Jennings to the jail. On the drive there, Mr. Jennings said, an officer asked if he could pray for him because he was having family issues back home.
“I started counseling him,” Mr. Jennings said. “Now that’s eccentric.”
The officers continued to tell him that if he had only shown identification, there wouldn’t have been trouble.
An Alabama law states that an officer can demand the name and address and an explanation of a person’s actions if they suspect the person “is committing, has committed or is about to commit a felony” in a public space. But Mr. Daniels said that Mr. Jennings did tell them his name and address when he said, “I’m Pastor Jennings; I live up the street.” And Mr. Jennings explained his actions, Mr. Daniels said, when he stated that he was watering the neighbor’s plants while he was gone.
“Nothing in the statute requires a person to give identification,” Mr. Daniels said.
Mr. Jennings, who also works in landscaping and sells furniture, said he was still startled about the encounter. But he added that he does not hate the people involved.
“The Bible teaches us to love thy neighbor,” he said. “Whether it’s the one you want to water their flowers for, or the one who calls the police on you.”
(New York Times)