Family files federal lawsuit against Sterling Heights Police alleging racial bias in 2019 arrest

The family of an 18-year-old who was arrested in Sterling Heights more than a year ago has filed a lawsuit against the department and the officer involved in federal court.

The family alleges racial bias played a factor in the arrest of the teen who had been standing under an awning of a closed business in a plaza when an officer approached him and asked for identification. 

The teen refused before tensions escalated between them and the officer, eventually leading to a struggle. The officer tackled the teen and detained them before asking for more backup.

Police claim that back in April of 2019, several break-ins of stores located in a business plaza in the Van Dyke area had led to increased police presence in the area, including periodic patrols.

During one of those patrols, an officer spotted the individual near one of the stores after dark. As the officer started asking questions, the teen didn't cooperate before being placed in a chokehold. The teen said he told the officer he was waiting for his dad to pick him up from work. Dashcam footage revealed the interaction before it turned physical.

"Okay, well let me see your ID," said the officer.

"You don't need my ID," responds the 18-year-old.

"I'm telling you I want your ID," the officer repeats.

"You don't need it though," the 18-year-old says again.

"Turn around and put your hands behind your back, because you're not identifying yourself," the officer says before taking out his handcuffs.

The two scuffle around before the 18-year-old was tackled to the ground.

In the aftermath of the arrest, the individual was released on bond while an investigation began. Upon review, it was determined the individual was an employee of another business located at the other end of the plaza - per an incident report provided by Sterling Heights Police.

Upon that discovery, Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski recommended all charges be dropped. The officer involved was disciplined for failure to use his microphone and was ordered to complete de-escalation training. The department said it also revamped best practices for enforcing the city's loitering ordinance while its upper-level commanding officers attended implicit bias courses hosted by the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Dwojakowski said he also met with the individual and the family "to review the video and applicable procedures."

"He clarified the reason for the approach and arrest and apologized. The officer involved had no history of prior complaints or disciplinary actions and the department has not been subject to other similar complaints. In a statement provided to FOX 2, it says:

"The department and city immediately launched a thorough investigation of this incident when it happened more than a year ago. Foremost, we are thankful there were no physical injuries associated with this incident. After that detailed review, we are confident it was an isolated incident, and we took several action steps to help address and resolve the situation as swiftly as possible, including dropping the charges and apologizing as well as disciplinary action for the officer and additional de-escalation training. We are committed to ensuring our police department lives our philosophy of continuous improvement and doing all we can to ensure positive race and community relations and dialogue with all those we serve while fulfilling the oaths we all took to uphold and protect our constitution and community and act with integrity and character."

The police department denies skin color played a role in the officer's actions.

FOX 2 reached out to the attorney of the family suing the police department but did not immediately hear back.

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Despite taking place more than a year ago, the revival of the incident underscores the racial tension playing out across the U.S. amid the death of George Floyd, a black man who had a white police officer's knee placed on his neck for nine minutes before dying.

Video showing the violent arrest has sparked collective outrage and mass protests across the country, including in Detroit where marches and demonstrations have more the most part been peaceful.