Freeport police shooting sparked outrage in the 1940s
A case of police-involved violence unfolded 70 years ago in Freeport, sparking nationwide outrage.
On Feb. 5, 1946, Freeport Patrolman Joseph Romeika shot and killed two brothers, Charles and Alfonso Ferguson. It happened after the two men, along with their other brothers Joseph and Richard, were denied coffee at the Freeport bus station's tearoom.
Charles Ferguson got into an argument with the owner, accusing him of discrimination. The owner then called Officer Romeika, who stopped the brothers and lined them up against a wall with their hands up.
When Charles threatened to pull out a pistol and made movements toward his waist, Romeika shot him and Alfonso dead.
Wilfred Ferguson is Charles' son and was only 2 years old at the time of the shooting. He says he believes Romeika pulled the trigger because the Fergusons were black.
After news of the shooting made national headlines, the FBI launched an investigation. Protesters called on then-New York Gov. Thomas Dewey to appoint a special investigator to the case. A grand jury eventually cleared Romeika of wrongdoing based in part on testimony from one of the surviving Ferguson brothers, Joseph.
Romeika was cleared a second time by a special investigator appointed by the governor and attorney general to probe the shootings. Romeika remained on the Freeport police force and, years later, was put in charge of the Freeport Police Boys Club.
Former Freeport Police Chief Julius Pearse met Romeika in 1962, when Pearse joined the force as the first African-American on the Freeport Police Department. Pearse says Romeika's actions were justified.
"When he reaches in his pocket as if he's going to pull out a gun and charges you, you believe now he has a gun," Pearse says. "I think Officer Romeika was trying to save his life. I would have probably done the same thing under those same conditions."
Seventy years have passed since state officials closed the case, but for the Ferguson family, time has not healed their wounds. Charles' granddaughters have launched their own search for answers in hopes of reopening the case. For the family, it's a matter of standing up to concerns about police brutality and seeking justice for a father and grandfather.