Friendship is one of those pleasant neighborhoods in Pittsburgh’s East End that knows what it is all about. Not too rich and not at all poor, Friendship possesses an abundance of medium-sized homes and Victorian-style domiciles connected by the uniform green of immaculate lawns.
On April 27, a gaggle of reporters gathered on Harriet Street to learn details about the settlement of a wrongful death suit filed by Todd J. Hollis Law on behalf of the family of Jim Rogers, a 54-year-old unhoused Black man tased to death by a police officer who felt threatened by the victim’s alleged “noncompliance.”
The city agreed to pay $8 million to the Rogers family to settle the lawsuit. Todd Hollis, the firm’s chief litigator and strategist, explained why Pittsburgh had agreed to pay the largest settlement in the city’s history. He also explained why the family insisted that the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police change its use-of-force policy to avoid future unarmed civilian deaths.
Rogers found himself on the business end of an officer’s taser because he dared to pedal down Friendship’s streets testing whether a bike that was being given away was compatible with his needs.
After concluding it wasn’t a good fit, Rogers returned the bike to the spot where he found it minutes earlier. The bike’s owner had intended it to be taken from his front lawn and enjoyed free of charge by whoever was willing to roll it away.
When Rogers took the bike for a spin that October evening in 2021, one of Friendship’s vigilant citizens looked out her window and saw him pedaling away as if he owned it. She called the police because “stealing” a bike couldn’t be tolerated in Friendship.
The neighbor’s decision to call the cops was particularly short-sighted a year after George Floyd was murdered. She had to know that protests had erupted across the country in the wake of fatal encounters involving police and unarmed Black citizens.
Hashtags like #DrivingWhileBlack, #JoggingWhileBlack, #ExistingWhileBlack and #PicnickingWhileBlack dominated social media and saturated mainstream news coverage. Every American with access to media knew by then that once the cops were involved, the odds were against a peaceful resolution to the situation despite the very low stakes involved in an alleged bike theft.
Officer Keith Edmonds arrived on the scene first. A video of the first encounter shows Rogers on the ground with Edmonds, who also happens to be Black, standing over him deploying a taser. It is estimated that Rogers was tased at least 10 times. Though he is filmed writhing in agony, Rogers does not attempt to flee or resist arrest. He was unarmed. He had not committed a crime. His only crime was that he was out of place in a neighborhood of such neatly trimmed lawns.
Soon, many more police officers and EMTs arrived. Rogers was not given medical aid or attention despite his pleas for help. Later, five Pittsburgh police officers would be fired because of their conduct that evening; three more would be disciplined but not fired. Also cited in the suit were two unidentified emergency workers who did nothing to alleviate Rogers’ pain and suffering.
The unprofessionalism, incompetence and failure to follow basic police procedures were so egregious that the city and even the Fraternal Order of Police got down to serious bargaining with the Rogers family without the usual Kabuki theatre of denial, excuse-making and intransigence. The evidence of official malpractice at every point of the incident was overwhelming.
There was no denying the fact that a man who had stolen nothing and committed no crime was dead at the hands of police he hadn’t threatened in any way.
When the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner declared that Rogers’ death was an accident attributable to a lack of oxygen to his brain, it was no surprise to anyone. It was obvious that had Rogers received medical attention from the cops or EMTs on site, he would have survived that horrific ordeal with only scars, nightmares and a crippling fear of the police to attest to it.
Along with the $8 million it has agreed to pay, the city and police have less than a month to decide whether adopting a list of police reforms suggested by the family regarding the use of deadly force and the tasing of unarmed suspects is the better part of valor considering its abysmal training so far.
The following is an excerpt from a longer interview conducted with lead attorney Todd J. Hollis by NEXTpittsburgh. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Given the amount of money the city has already agreed to pay, the reforms you and the Jim Rogers estate have suggested seem far less onerous. Do you have any reason to believe the Pittsburgh police wouldn’t implement the Jim Rogers Rules?
A: During the mediation process it has been said to me on many occasions that money is the only remedy in a case like this. I completely disagree with this ideology. Yes, money in some cases is the only tangible thing that a victim or aggrieved party can attain to right a wrongdoing, but in this matter, I saw it completely differently.
I think money is a quick fix and it cannot be the only remedy to wrongdoing when someone loses a life [as] tragically as Mr. Rogers did. When my team sat down with the City of Pittsburgh and the individual defendants, we made it clear that there would be both economic and noneconomic remedies.
We did not receive any pushback from the city or any other party. I believe that although we were on opposite sides of the table, there was a common understanding that this case could not be viewed as business as usual.
We made sure to include the noneconomic remedies in our settlement demand and the city has agreed to discuss those terms. Thus, at this time I do not have a concern that the city will not uphold its agreement.
Q: Back when it happened, much was made of the fact that the cop who killed Jim Rogers was also Black, so “racism had nothing to do with his killing.” Now, we rarely hear people talking about that in such patently stupid ways.
Assuming Officer Edmonds is one of the five fired cops, is the Rogers family satisfied with that punishment or do they reserve the option of pursuing a civil suit given how he violated police procedures?
A: During the initial encounter, Mr. Rogers had his hands in the air and was submitting to authority. In spite of this, the situation escalated and resulted in Mr. Rogers being tased 10 times with 500,000 volts for a crime he never committed. After his arrest, he was placed in the back of a police car where he sat for approximately 27 minutes and could be heard begging and pleading for help.
There were both Black and white police officers present and no one made any effort to provide him with the medical care that he desperately needed. If you drive to a grocery store and you leave your pet in the car with the windows rolled up on a hot day, when you return from the store two things are likely to happen: Your pet may be dead and you’re likely to be arrested for animal cruelty.
Why is it that the police officers in this similar situation were treated differently than an ordinary citizen? The Fraternal Order of Police has made it difficult to fire or reprimand a police officer. If you want change, then the government officials at the highest levels have to refuse to support contracts with the FOP that undermine public policy and common sense.
No, the family is not satisfied with the mere fact that Mr. Edmonds and the other police officers have been fired. This is why we’re suggesting that the Rogers Rules be implemented to prevent something like this from ever happening again.
Q: Mayor Ed Gainey appears to accept the justice of the settlement. Even Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. implied he was open to filing charges against the cops at some point, which was shocking.
A: In this particular case, the facts were very clear and egregious. Additionally, the mayor’s office was open to the suggested changes, which made it easier for the two parties to resolve the matter without a trial.
I don’t want to speak for the mayor or DA, but we are pleased with the city’s response to our demands thus far. Again, I never supported a resolution to this matter with money being the sole remedy. Public officials should be held to a higher responsibility because they are trusted with the power to act under the color of law, which could have a dramatic impact on the lives of ordinary citizens.
Public officials are employees and as such, when they do not meet the expectations of their jobs, they should be terminated as would any other employee who shows poor work performance.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.