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A Black pastor sues the police who arrested him while watering his neighbors' flowers

This image captured from bodycam video released by the Childersburg (Ala.) Police Department and provided by attorney Harry Daniels shows Michael Jennings, left, in custody in Childersburg, Ala., on May 22. Jennings was helping out a friend by watering flowers when officers showed up and placed him under arrest within moments.
Childersburg Police Department via AP
This image captured from bodycam video released by the Childersburg (Ala.) Police Department and provided by attorney Harry Daniels shows Michael Jennings, left, in custody in Childersburg, Ala., on May 22. Jennings was helping out a friend by watering flowers when officers showed up and placed him under arrest within moments.

Updated September 10, 2022 at 1:03 PM ET

Michael Jennings, the Black pastor arrested while watering his neighbor's flowers, has filed a federal lawsuit against the police officers involved in his detainment.

The lawsuit also names the city of Childersburg, which oversees the police department that arrested Jennings, as a defendant.

Jennings, a longtime pastor at Vision of Abundant Life Church in Sylacauga, Ala., is represented by national civil rights attorney, Harry Daniels, and attorneys Bethaney Embry Jones, Joi Travis and Roderick Van Daniels. They hosted a news conference Saturday with the Alabama NAACP to discuss the case.

"I'm here for accountability, and I'm here for justice," Jennings said.

The lawsuit says Jennings is suffering from emotional distress and "significant PTSD type symptoms" that include nightmares and flashbacks.

He is asking for a jury to hear the case and to determine compensatory and punitive damages as well as money to cover the costs of the lawsuit, including attorneys' fees.

Alabama NAACP President Benard Simelton said in a statement to NPR that there are concerns about the officers' training.

"These poor judgment decisions reflect poorly on the type of training the Childersburg police officers receive ... if they were acting in accordance within police guidelines," he added.

The attorneys representing Jennings said the release of the body camera video will furthermore clear the way for "legal action against the officers and more."

"This video makes it clear that these officers decided they were going to arrest Pastor Jennings less than five minutes after pulling up and then tried to rewrite history claiming he hadn't identified himself when that was the first thing he did," attorney Harry Daniels said in a statement to NPR.

Jennings said he was doing a neighborly deed of watering his out-of-town neighbor's flowers, per their request, on May 22 when a Childersburg police officer showed up.

"I'm supposed to be here. I'm Pastor Jennings. I live across the street," Jennings told the officer in the body camera footage obtained by NPR.

"I'm looking out for their house while they're gone, watering their flowers," he said.

Michael Jennings is a pastor at this church in Sylacauga, Ala. Jennings was arrested while watering flowers at a neighbor's home in nearby Childersburg in May.
Jay Reeves / AP
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AP
Michael Jennings is a pastor at this church in Sylacauga, Ala. Jennings was arrested while watering flowers at a neighbor's home in nearby Childersburg in May.

Following their arrival, police arrested Jennings and placed him in the back of a police cruiser — later charging him with obstructing government operations, according to a criminal complaint.

"When they first pulled up, I already knew that it was gonna be something," Jennings said in an interview with NPR.

Jennings recalls that when the police arrived at his neighbors' house, he immediately noticed the officers' behavior.

"[The officer] parked around back and walked around front. And immediately, you could tell by the tone of his voice I was already guilty," he said.

In the 20-minute video, a Childersburg police officer approaches Jennings as he is seen on camera watering plants in a yard. Once the officer approaches Jennings and asks him what he is doing, he replies: "Watering flowers."

The unidentified officer asks Jennings if a car parked in the neighbor's driveway belongs to him. Jennings responds to the officer saying the car belongs to his neighbor.

Later in the video, the officer asks the pastor if he lives at the home, and he says to the officer that he does not.

The exchange between Jennings and the officer leads to shouting as Jennings explains to the officers that he has done nothing wrong. He tells the officers: "I told him I'm a pastor. ... You want to lock me up, lock me up. ... Lock me up and see what happens. I want you to."

Jennings, a former police officer himself, is seen on video placed in handcuffs for not providing the officers with his identification.

The charges against Jennings were later dismissed by a municipal judge in June.

Throughout NPR's multiple reports on this incident, the Childersburg Police Department has not responded to NPR's request for comment.

Alabama law says that any officer "may stop any person abroad in a public place" if they suspect that the person is committing or has committed a felony or another public offense — and can demand the person's name, address and an explanation of their actions.

However, Jennings' attorneys emphasize in their statement that "Alabama's Stop and Identify Law did not require Pastor Jennings ... to identify himself because he was not in a public place."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.