In late 2021, T.J. Juty was in his Mercedes SUV when a Worcester police officer pulled him over. Juty, who’s Black, runs a Worcester marketing company and was on his way to Union Station to catch a commuter train to Boston for a business meeting. But Juty never made the meeting.

The Worcester officer stopped him because Juty’s car was not the same color listed on its registration. Juty told the officer the white car was covered with a purple vinyl wrap, and by law he wasn’t required to update his registration. Nevertheless, the interaction grew tense and the officer arrested Juty for disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace and interfering with a police officer, according to the arrest report. But Juty’s attorney, Joseph Hennessey, says a video Juty took on his phone during the incident shows he didn’t do anything illegal.

Juty and Hennessey are now disputing the charges in court, claiming the officer fabricated details in the arrest report. They’re also suing the Worcester Police Department for racial profiling, saying that over the past eight years Worcester cops have stopped Juty more than 70 times. Juty says officers have accused him of stealing cars and dealing drugs before realizing he’s done none of that.

“I feel like every single time, even if I’m not driving, and I make eye contact or an officer sees my dreads or he sees I’m Black, they’re going to come after me,” Juty said. “I just know whenever they’re coming now, I just have my phone ready” to record.

Accounts like Juty’s help explain why the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Worcester Police Department for excessive use of force and discriminatory policing based on race and sex. Criminal defense attorneys across Massachusetts say the probe has been a long time coming.

Beyond excessive force and discriminatory policing, attorneys say Worcester officers habitually fabricate evidence and illegally falsify charges to justify arresting people. They point to the nearly $4.8 million the city has paid since 2006 to settle more than three dozen lawsuits against the police department for reasons, including false arrests and excessive force.

“In all of the police departments that I've ever dealt with, Worcester is the worst,” said Hennessey, who was a police officer in Waltham, Ashland and Sherborne for a combined 23 years. Since becoming a defense attorney, he's had cases involving more than a dozen other police departments around Massachusetts.

“[Worcester Police Chief Steve Sargent’s] turning his head the other way and allowing it to happen,” he added.

Citing the ongoing Justice Department investigation, the city and police department declined to give interviews for this story. But they said they’re cooperating with the probe and “strive to deliver the highest quality of municipal services to residents.”

Federal officials haven’t given a timetable for the investigation, but they say they’re reviewing misconduct complaints against officers and evaluating how the police department operates and holds staff accountable. Once complete, the probe could result in a court-supervised order, forcing the department to make reforms.

Joseph Hennessey
Worcester defense lawyer Joseph Hennessey was previously a police officer for 23 years.
Sam Turken GBH News

‘They definitely made it up’

False arrests and fabricating evidence have long been an issue in police departments nationwide. In 2013, the Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police called for investigative reforms, such as stronger evaluations of evidence, to prevent wrongful arrests. And yet, according to a 2020 study by the National Registry of Exonerations, falsifying evidence has continued to be one of the main forms of police misconduct that lead to wrongful convictions.

In Worcester, Hennessey said he’s seen a dozen cases in which video footage and photos prove an officer wrongfully arrested someone or fabricated evidence. Héctor Piñeiro, another Worcester defense attorney, has witnessed even more. In fact, when Piñeiro defends clients who may have been unjustly arrested or suffered from excessive use of force, his priority is to search for any public camera footage that could show officers lied about the arrest.

“These cameras are the difference between walking [free] or going to jail or pleading guilty or getting your records screwed up,” said Piñeiro, who’s sued the police department dozens of times, accusing officers of deception to hide excessive use of force or justify an arrest.

One notable example of a false arrest came in early 2020 when officers stopped a car near downtown because they suspected the driver was involved in a drug transaction. A group of officers quickly rushed over to the vehicle while stopped at a red light and immediately dragged the driver, Brima Fofana, out of it. Although the officers soon realized a drug transaction never occurred, they still arrested Fofana, who’s Black, claiming he resisted arrest and tried to run them over with his car.

But Hennessey, his attorney, said surveillance video reviewed by GBH News from a nearby building showed none of that happened, and prosecutors eventually dropped the charges. The incident has continued to traumatize Fofana, who emigrated from Liberia 15 years ago and had never been previously arrested.

“The whole time it was happening, I was really confused, like, ‘What’s going on?”’ said Fofana, who’s now suing the police department for racial profiling. “I get nervous just driving and a state trooper or cop gets behind me because automatically I’m already having that thought of what happened. There’s no telling what might happen.”

"In all of the police departments that I've ever dealt with, Worcester is the worst."
Joseph Hennessey, a Worcester defense lawyer and former police officer

Another arrest involving fabricated charges occurred in 2019 when a Worcester officer stopped a Black man in a Walmart on suspicion of shoplifting. After realizing the man did not steal anything, the officer, Joseph Mitchell, charged him with resisting arrest, disturbing the peace and disorderly conduct. Prosecutors dropped the charges after surveillance video showed Mitchell lied and the man did nothing wrong. The city of Worcester settled a lawsuit with the man for $20,000.

According to internal discipline records, the police department cleared Mitchell of racial profiling but sustained an allegation against him for a false arrest.

Earlier in 2019, Mitchell arrested a woman at a gas station, accusing her of striking him with her car. The woman, Allyson Kirkland, denies she ever struck him and has continued to dispute the charges in court. She and her legal team haven’t found any surveillance video that could exonerate her. But they do have a recording of another officer's communications with his dispatcher right before the arrest that Kirkland claims conflicts with the arrest report. In the recording reviewed by GBH News, the officer, Mike Prizio, says Kirkland tried to hit him and Mitchell, not that she actually struck them.

“It doesn’t even make sense,” Kirkland, who’s white, told GBH News. “They definitely made it up.”

Since the arrest, Kirkland has spent much of her time trying to prove her innocence by searching for possible witnesses, gathering evidence and looking for surveillance video. She said the charges on her record have made it difficult for her to secure apartments and find jobs as a personal care attendant. She’s also ashamed her 14-year-old daughter knows she was arrested.

“Kids don’t learn by you necessarily telling them things. They learn mostly by watching you,” Kirkland said. “So it’s kind of hypocritical for me to say, ‘Don’t get arrested,’ when I’ve been arrested.”

Why lie?

Police experts and defense attorneys say there are a few reasons why officers falsify arrests. Fabrication can be an easy way for officers to cover up racial profiling or justify arresting or using excessive force on someone who’s done nothing wrong. Hennessey said that while he was in the police academy, instructors taught him that there are always ways to make a disorderly conduct charge.

For example, he said that if an officer steps on someone’s foot, the person will instinctively push the officer’s foot back. Then the officer can say, “‘You just assaulted me,” Hennessey said.

Falsifying charges can be especially useful for officers who have to make a minimum number of arrests or citations over specific periods of time. Hennessy said if an officer in a gang unit is not meeting certain standards, then they’re at risk of being replaced. This has been a issue nationwide, with one survey by the National Police Research Platform finding that eight out of 10 police officers have reported their agency is “more interested in measuring the amount of activity by officers” than the quality of their work.

Piñeiro added that officers will fabricate or plant evidence against people they think are up to no good even if they’ve done nothing wrong at the time of the arrest. Known as noble-cause policing, the practice involves doing whatever it takes to get “bad guys” off streets.

In Worcester, Piñeiro said he sees this happen when officers illegally search people’s homes and cars for drugs. He and Hennessey pointed to a 2014 case when officers staged evidence in an apartment during a drug search. Hennessey said timestamps of photos taken by the police showed officers placed drug packaging materials atop a fridge in the apartment after they began their search. In response, a judge threw out the evidence gathered from the search.

“If the elite [drug] units think that’s OK,” Piñeiro said, “then the rank and file do that as well because there’s acquiescence from the top.”

Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights attorney who’s worked on police misconduct cases in Worcester, agreed. He added that if police leadership punished officers for false reporting and fabricating evidence, then it wouldn’t happen as often as it does.

Héctor Piñeiro
Defense lawyer Héctor Piñeiro said he's seen dozens of cases in which video footage and photos prove an officer wrongfully arrested someone or fabricated evidence.
Sam Turken GBH News

One way to increase transparency and limit fabrication, the attorneys said, would be to put body cameras on all officers. While body cameras are becoming more common around Massachusetts, Worcester has yet to implement a comprehensive body cam program.

In a statement to GBH News, a Worcester Police spokesperson said the department has been acquiring body cameras and now has 300. The department has trained officers to use them but has not announced a launch date for wearing them.

Regardless of whether the department does start using the cameras soon, the lawyers say that the Department of Justice investigation presents the best opportunity for Worcester Police to address the pattern of false arrests. They pointed to Springfield, where the DOJ opened a similar investigation in 2018. The probe took four years and resulted in an agreement that the police will better supervise officers and improve policies and training related to officers’ use of force.

Defense attorneys say the DOJ’s investigation of the Worcester Police Department could lead to similar reforms when it’s completed in months’ or years’ time.

“Policing is an extraordinarily difficult field,” said Jacqueline Dutton, who runs the Worcester Public Defender’s Office and also regularly sees wrongful arrests. “I would hope that an investigation like this would help honor the people who are doing exactly what they set out to do by being police officers and kind of assisting the community and keeping people safe and addressing concerns — and hold people who are not doing that accountable.”