Lower Merion police investigation clears itself of racial bias in controversial stop

    Lower Merion police say they did not overstep their bounds when they stopped 58-year-old Nathaniel Williams while he was waiting for the bus the morning of Oct. 26.

    Williams and the Main Line NAACP president Diana Robertson filed a complaint against the police department on Nov. 2, questioning both the motive and the method of the stop.

    Williams, who was headed to a doctor’s appointment, fit the description of a robber who had held up a nearby TD Bank. Three officers told Williams to get on his knees, handcuffed him and searched his bag before clearing him of any suspicion.

    According to the internal investigation, Williams told police he believed he was stopped because he is black. The officers offered Williams a ride to his doctor’s appointment after clearing him as a suspect, which he declined.

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    Lower Merion Police Chief Mike McGrath said the stop was completely routine.

    “It would be the same response that we would have to any violent crime, make any stop of any individual who might match the description of any fleeing actor,” he said.

    The bank robber was described as African-American, around 6 feet tall, 40 or 50 years old and wearing a brown hoodie and glasses.

    Following Williams’ experience, two area churches held forums on the relationship between the police and the African-American community, and residents also took their complaints to the township commission.

    The Rev. Carolyn Cavaness of the Bethel AME Church in Ardmore said she thought a tighter description could have prevented an unnecessary stop.

    “There needs to be further work around description,” she said. “Like, what type of glasses did the gentleman have,” noting that Williams’ glasses have distinctive frames.

    Following the outcome of the police report, Robertson said she still had questions about what constitutes a normal stop: Do suspects always have to get on their knees? Why was a stun gun taken out?

    Lower Merion has received attention for what some see as insensitive or racially motivated stops. In January, two black men shoveling snow were stopped and questioned.

    In the police report on that incident, pains were taken to empathize with those wrongly stopped for a crime which they didn’t commit.

    “The Police Department fully recognizes that innocent people stopped in a situation such as this naturally feel anxious, humiliated and ill-treated. This is not only understandable, but reasonable,” it read.

    At a Wednesday meeting, Lower Merion Commissioner Liz Rogan mentioned the possibility of a commission on community relations after hearing residents’ responses to the stop.

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