Police chief orders probe in handcuffing of black Miami doctor on front lines of coronavirus fight

Video shows the doctor was handcuffed after placing bulky trash on the sidewalk.

April 12, 2020, 10:30 PM

An African American doctor, who has been battling the coronavirus pandemic in his hospital and on the streets of Miami, was detained and handcuffed in front of his own home by a police sergeant as he loaded up his van with supplies he says he planned to take to the homeless.

Dr. Armen Henderson, an internal medicine physician at the University of Miami Health System, said his biggest concern about the up-close encounter was that the City of Miami police sergeant was not wearing a protective mask when Henderson says the sergeant got "all up in my face," Henderson told ABC News on Sunday.

The incident occurred on Friday, just three days after Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina announced that at least six of his officers had tested positive for the coronavirus and another 125 had been quarantined pending test results. In a video statement, Colina pleaded with the public to help protect his officers, saying, "Please, stay inside, adhere to social distancing, wear a mask or a cloth face covering and be responsible. We’re here for you. Please do your part for us."

Henderson, 34, said obviously the sergeant who handcuffed him didn't get the chief's message.

"He put me at risk," Henderson said. "Now I feel like I should get tested, honestly. Most likely I will because he definitely was spitting in my face. I could feel it while he was yelling at me."

Henderson alleges the sergeant detained him because he is black.

Colina said he has ordered an investigation of the incident.

Police did not release the sergeant's name, but video footage of the encounter taken by a security camera outside Henderson's home shows the sergeant did not seem concerned about social distancing and appeared to get face-to-face with Henderson while pointing his finger at the doctor's face.

PHOTO: Dr. Armen Henderson, second from left, talks with volunteers before heading out to do outreach with the homeless population during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, April 3, 2020, in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami.
Dr. Armen Henderson, second from left, talks with volunteers before heading out to do outreach with the homeless population during the new coronavirus pandemic, Friday, April 3, 2020, in the Overtown neighborhood of Miami. Henderson has partnered with local organizations and volunteers to educate the homeless about the virus. They also passed out tents, meals and bottled water.
Lynne Sladky/AP

"Let me start by saying that the City of Miami Police Department does not condone or accept profiling of any kind," Colina said in a video statement released on Saturday.

Saying he wanted to "provide a little bit of context of what was going on here," Colina said his department has received numerous complaints from residents of Henderson's Flagami neighborhood of people illegally dumping trash on the streets.

“We have had a litany of complaints pertaining to illegal dumping. The commissioner from that area has received many complaints as well from the constituents," Colina said “There is a cargo van that’s parked in front of that home where there appears to be trash that’s being offloaded. That is the genesis of the stop. Now, what’s happened after that, what’s being discussed, the actions taken, etcetera ... all that needs to be investigated and it will be investigated."

The soundless security video from Henderson's home, which was shared with ABC News, shows the doctor wearing a protective mask and loading supplies into a white cargo van, and placing bulky trash on the sidewalk when the sergeant pulls up and appears to begin questioning him.

“He just said, ‘Are you littering over here?’ Do you live here? Do you work here?’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I live here. This is where we put our bulky trash and the city comes to pick it up every week at this same place," Henderson said.

He said the incident occurred about 11:30 a.m., a half-hour before he was to meet the homeless outreach group he works with to distribute supplies in downtown Miami.

"We’ve been out there once or twice a week for the last four weeks, handing out tents, toiletries, masks, socks. We’ve been testing individuals for COVID-19 because it’s the most vulnerable population. If you want to control the spread you have to go right to the source and take care of these individuals first," Henderson said of his work on the streets.

He said that when he began to walk away from the sergeant, the encounter quickly escalated.

"I’m like, 'OK, thank you officer.' And then I turned around to get back to what I was doing," Henderson said. ''I guess he must have thought that I had disrespected him or something like that. He jumped out of the car and started yelling, 'You call me sergeant when I'm talking to you, and blah, blah, blah. And, you know what, give me your I.D.'''

Henderson said that when he told the sergeant he didn't have his identification on him, the sergeant pulled out his handcuffs, placed them on Henderson and walked the doctor to the front of his squad car. Henderson said he yelled out to his wife, who was inside their home with their two young children, to come out with his I.D.

When Henderson's wife showed the I.D. to the sergeant, the sergeant removed the handcuffs and released Henderson.

"He didn’t apologize. He just got in his car and drove away," Henderson said.

He said he didn't get the opportunity to tell the sergeant that he is a doctor.

''My hospital is becoming fuller and fuller, more and more people are coming in for COVID-19. I take care of the bulk of those patients just because I work at night. The majority of the patients that I’m seeing right now are COVID-19," Henderson told ABC News. ''It’s ironic because the police department released a whole video that morning saying, 'We thank first responders.' But even if I wasn’t a doctor, why do you feel the need to stop me during a pandemic? Don't you have other things to do?"

Editor's note: This article has been updated to reflect the police sergeant was from the City of Miami, not Miami-Dade.

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