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Officer down, citizen dead

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Even after years of Fox TV's Cops, an amateur video shot during an incident at a Wegmans supermarket can make an impression.

            The video records less than two minutes of an arrest at the market August 31. It shows Rochester Police Department officers pinning Lawrence Rogers, a northeast Rochester resident who was clad only in boxers, to the ground. Rogers, say local media reports, was "acting irrationally." Indeed, before the videocam started running, Rogers had bitten part of one officer's finger off and tried to bite another officer. The injury, says RPD spokesperson Sgt. Carlos Garcia, brought 35 officers to the scene. Rogers was not armed, but the call was a red flag. "It was a call for an 'officer down,' and at that point officers don't know what it's all about," says Garcia.

            The full video shows this chain of events: One officer, using a short dowel, grabs a bystander around the neck and throws him onto the pavement. In the background, yet another officer is seen arresting a Wegmans employee. (Wegmans spokesperson Katie Crane says two Wegmans employees who were arrested are on administrative leave and definitely have not been fired.) "Look at this shit," shouts the woman shooting the video. "I got you," she tells the officers, meaning she's got them on tape. Then she yells, "He maced me!" From then on, the video misses its target.

            Things ended badly: Rogers was taken to Rochester General Hospital where he was given a sedative; he died less than an hour later.

            The incident pitted three African-American arrestees and minority onlookers against several white police officers making the arrests. And this has drawn attention from the Rev. Norvel Goff, head of the local NAACP. "We need to call for an outside investigation," Goff said.

            The RPD's own findings are still tentative. For one thing, the department is waiting for a toxicology report from a lab in Rome, New York, according to Police Chief Robert Duffy. The chief acknowledged there's a "possibility" some officers may have acted inappropriately. Spokesperson Sgt. Garcia said both an RPD criminal investigation and a routine internal investigation are underway, and two officers have been taken off street duty. Moreover, he said, the RPD is trying to piece together some facts from a low-quality Wegmans security video that recorded the whole incident.

            Otherwise, things are moving deliberately through the system. District Attorney Howard Relin said the two Wegmans employees and one other citizen have been arraigned for "obstructing governmental administration" and interfering with an arrest.

All this is prelude to a struggle of ideas and interpretations.

            At an angry news conference last week at New Bethel C.M.E Church, pastor Raymond Graves began by doubting the results of a toxicology report in the case of Shawn Dukes, an African-American man who died after being arrested on Hamilton Street this past July. The report said Dukes was suffering from cocaine and methanol poisoning.

            Pastor Joy Powell, an activist who's taken part in anti-violence rallies in the city since Lawrence Rogers' death, put her finger on the community mood. "People tell me, it's definitely not the last time the police will inflict violence on us, and we're going to take matters in our own hands... I get worried... We're not going to take any more beatings, any more murders from the police department." The RPD, said Powell, needs "to call in the professionals" who know how to deal with people showing symptoms of mental illness.

            "We march all the time," lamented Bishop Gabriel Hallback of Plowing the Way to God Ministries. There's a need, he said, to put the church "back at the head of things."

            When authorities don't listen to a community's passionate feelings, said the Rev. Graves, disaster can follow, as in the 1964 urban rebellion here. "These atrocities have to stop," said Graves, noting a string of several suspicious deaths this year. "We have no doubt that Lawrence Rogers died of police brutality... I'm telling everybody, get your own lawyer and sue!"

            At New Bethel right after the news conference, Charlotte resident Kim Smith said she'd witnessed the incident at Wegmans; she at first declined to comment without a lawyer present. Then she turned briskly: "The only thing I can tell you is they beat that man to death."

            On September 9, local Green Party members held their own news conference downtown, with the new Public Safety Building and expanded county jail as backdrops. Spokesperson Jason Crane called for an enhanced civilian review board with subpoena power --- more power than the existing Civilian Review Board has.

            The Greens say social workers and the like need to be deployed when the mentally ill pose risks to themselves and others. They note this is the class of workers now being squeezed by budget cuts --- even while jails, including Monroe County's, have been "upsized."

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