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Unacceptable use of force

Akbar Rogers' arrest by Freeport police was captured

Akbar Rogers' arrest by Freeport police was captured by cell video.  Credit: Howard Schnapp

 Nearly six months before George Floyd screamed, “I can’t breathe,” another bystander’s cell phone video far closer to home captured police officers in Freeport punching Akbar Rogers — again and again and again — as other village officers sat on him or held him down.

Rogers cried for help. But the officers didn’t let up, using foul language in response to his cries.

The disturbing Dec. 3 incident, which ultimately involved as many as eight Freeport police officers, who appear to be white, pursuing and restraining Rogers, who is Black, caught the attention of residents and criminal justice advocates. Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas reviewed the incident, and she emerged with a decision last week, choosing to dismiss charges against Rogers, including assault and resisting arrest, that stemmed from the arrest, but also choosing not to pursue charges against the officers.

It was an attempt to navigate a tricky legal path, but Singas’ decision must not be the end. In a statement, Singas said she was unable to charge the officers because their conduct was “lawful and consistent with officer training.”

It shouldn’t be.

Rogers initially was charged with a harassment violation after he allegedly pushed a pregnant woman to the floor in October. Village officials said the December events happened as Rogers was fleeing from officers who were attempting to arrest him in connection with another crime.

But the officers’ use of force was unacceptable no matter what the guidelines, and must not be left unchecked. This case deserves wider attention. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo should make a criminal referral to allow Attorney General Letitia James to investigate. A second look at this case is necessary, and state officials’ involvement will spotlight deficiencies in training and protocols that must be addressed for all police departments. Statewide use-of-force standards, as James has recommended, also should be established.

More immediately, the Freeport Police Department must pursue disciplinary action against the officers. The Newsday editorial board recently filed a freedom of information request for the eight officers’ disciplinary records, and was told no such records existed for them. The department also must reevaluate its policies and training practices. The appalling behavior exhibited on the video should not be permitted. 

And Singas must release the report of her use-of-force expert, William Hayden. Rogers’ counsel must quickly consent to its release if they want to see systemic change happen. But this goes far beyond Freeport. The Rogers case is a clear example of why officers who behave badly often don’t get punished, and should remind state lawmakers that they have more to do to reform our criminal justice system. Widening the attorney general’s special prosecutor role to go beyond civilian deaths that involve law enforcement may be necessary, too. What happened to Rogers shouldn’t get less attention just because he lived to talk about it. 

Perhaps the Freeport officers’ conduct didn’t meet the current barrier for prosecution. But we all know it was wrong — and must not be allowed to happen again.

— The editorial board