Criticism of city cops mounts (September 4, 2002)

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– by Patrick Flanigan, Staff Writer –
Democrat and Chronicle.

Joy Powell uses a megaphone during Tuesday’s rally outside Wegmans on Driving Park Avenue.

Troubled by the number of people who have died during or after encounters with city police officers this summer, Mayor William A. Johnson Jr. said Tuesday that he plans to ask a police-review panel to examine the events.

When he announced his intention to create such a panel last month, Johnson said the group of citizens would study the relationship between the community and Police Department but not investigate any specific incidents.

But now Johnson said he is “concerned” by reports of the Sunday night death of Lawrence Rogers, who died at Rochester General Hospital after police used force to arrest him outside the Wegmans Food Markets store on Driving Park Avenue.

Several witnesses have said officers punched and kicked Rogers after he was handcuffed. Rogers died at Rochester General after hospital officials gave him a sedative.

The cause of death has not been determined, but the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office said there was no significant evidence or physical injury.

“I might consider broadening the mission of the group to look at these episodes,” Johnson said. “The frequency of them is troubling to me and it’s troubling to a lot of people.”

Meanwhile on Tuesday, a group of residents held a rally outside the Driving Park Wegmans.

Rogers is the fourth person to die following police use of force since June 8, when 14-year-old Craig Heard was shot during an attempted traffic stop. All four victims were African-American, which has prompted a response from two local civil rights groups, including new criticism of the Police Department by the Rev. Raymond Graves.

Regardless of how Rogers died, Johnson said it’s important to know whether officers overstepped their authority during the arrest.

Several witnesses said police used excessive force to arrest Rogers and then used force against bystanders who tried to intervene. Three people were arrested for obstructing government administration.

“To see the amount of force used against these people is very much disturbing to me,” Johnson said.

He said police have a right to use force when making an arrest, and such a display could look excessive to civilians not familiar with police procedures. But he said the number of witnesses with similar accounts warrants further investigation.

One woman videotaped the end of the arrest and provided a copy to the police and the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The tape does not show any obvious evidence of excessive force against Rogers. In one sequence, an officer can be seen placing a male bystander in a choke-hold, then taking him to the ground to handcuff him.

The Rev. Norvel Goff, chairman of the Greater Rochester NAACP, said he was alarmed by what he saw on the video and accounts he has heard from witnesses. He urged Police Chief Robert Duffy to provide details from the police investigation as soon as possible.

“Chief Duffy and the Police Department need to respond very quickly,” Goff said. “We cannot wait for the full investigation to be completed.”

However, Goff said he is confident Duffy would not try to protect any officers who might be guilty of misconduct.

“Chief Duffy is a man of integrity. Until it’s proven otherwise, I’m going to be supportive of his investigation, Goff said.

Goff’s comments provided a contrast to those of Graves, president of United Church Ministries, who held a news conference Tuesday to say he plans to bring national attention to the recent deaths. Graves said he plans to contact the U.S. Department of Justice, the Congressional Black Caucus and “national black leaders” and ask them to examine the deaths.

“We shall do that to expose our corrupt city,” Graves said. “We’re going to move this issue beyond Rochester and let the nation know what is going on here.”

Johnson said the city has nothing to fear from a federal investigation and he is confident there are no systemic problems in the Police Department.

Graves warned that the community could erupt into violence if police don’t change their ways. He said he has heard some men say they will “shoot it out” rather than be taken into police custody.

Johnson said Graves is irresponsible to repeat such remarks.

“That’s one he should have kept to himself,” Johnson said. “We don’t need any more tragedy. We need calm.”

At Tuesday’s rally, about 50 people angry with the Police Department’s handling of the Rogers arrest rallied at Wegmans, then marched or drove to a police substation on Child Street, where they chanted, “No more police brutality.”

Leaders of the rally called for Duffy’s dismissal and expressed their belief that Rogers would be alive today if he had been white.

“There’s got to be a change in the system,” Joy Powell, an activist who helped organize the rally, yelled into a megaphone.

The protest was conducted without incident. Rogers’ four children were present and carrying signs, as was Rogers’ wife, Jennifer Barker.

“It was a great loss to my children and me,” she said, declining further comment.