The New York City Police detective who was arrested by Rockville Centre police last month on multiple counts of public lewdness and other crimes pleaded not guilty to all of the charges in 1st District Court on Monday.
Robert Francis, 46, a 17-year member of the 71st Precinct in Brooklyn, was taken into custody on Sherman Avenue early on the morning of March 26 and charged with four counts of public lewdness, three counts of endangering the welfare of a minor, three counts of criminal trespassing and one count of trespassing in five separate incidents.
Dressed in a black fleece jacket, light blue dress shirt, striped tie and dark slacks, Francis stood with both hands behind his back during his arraignment and did not address the court. Bail of $50 was continued on the first case, the initial incident on Feb. 5, and he was released on his own recognizance in the other four. He is due back in court on May 17.
Francis signed five orders of protection at the arraignment. He is not allowed within 100 yards of any of the complainants or to contact them in any way. He was also ordered to surrender all of his firearms.
Francis left the court silently, offering no statement to the press.
Rockville Centre Police Commissioner Charles Gennario said at a March 27 news conference that Francis admitted that “he was responsible for those incidents in Rockville Centre” in which he allegedly exposed himself and masturbated in the backyards of four village homes between February and March.
There were girls under age 16 in three of the homes, and in another, a 17-year-old. All four girls attend South Side High School. Gennario said that at the fifth house, where he did not go into the backyard, the girl was described only as a pre-teen.
But Francis’s attorney, Peter Brill, said that three of the victims described the perpetrator to Rockville Centre police as a white man, and the other two did not positively identify Francis, who is black, as the man they saw in their yards.
“You have no identification proceedings whatsoever in any of these cases,” Brill said. “No show-ups, no lineups, no photo arrays. No one identified Mr. Francis as the person who perpetrated these crimes.”
Gennario acknowledged that it would be hard for the victims to identify Francis because it was dark at the time, and they were spooked at the sight of an unknown man on their property. “Eyewitness accounts will differ because it was dark out,” Gennario said. “They glanced at him and ran away. They’re not going to continue staring at him with his actions.”
Brill added that the court ordered Francis to sign the orders of protection as a precaution, and it was not an admission of guilt.
According to police, Francis expressed remorse but did not provide a motive for his actions, telling officials only that “he had a lot going on in his life” and was “going through a tough time,” according to Gennario.
Brill said that police officials took advantage of Francis’s situation to obtain a confession, and added that his client had been the subject of racial discrimination by the NYPD.
“Police tactics are very, very coercive in situations like this, when they’re looking to a vulnerable person and the person is under a great deal of stress …,” Brill said. “Especially a police officer who is being held in a situation like this, where he’s never faced something like this before. False confessions are well-documented. They’re scientific, and happen all the time.”
Brill also cited Francis’s background as another reason why he believes he is innocent. “It was without a doubt a false confession,” Brill said. “He is a military veteran with over 15 years with the New York City Police Department, an upstanding citizen, someone who’s never had one issue in his life before, and all of a sudden he’s confessing? It’s insane.”
Gennario did not understand Brill’s statement, and that Francis, a police officer, should know the procedure. “He should know our techniques very well, not only as a police officer but as a detective for a very long time,” Gennario said. “We did not coerce him. We used proper questioning. I’m very proud of my detectives for the job they did.”
The Feb. 5 incident happened on Lakeview Avenue between 9 and 10 p.m. The next two took place on Feb. 27, between 8:50 and 9 p.m., behind homes on Brompton Road and Seaman avenues that have connecting backyards. The fourth alleged offense occurred on Sherman Avenue at around 10:30 p.m. on March 24. The next night, a Rockville Centre resident called police to report a suspicious person in the driveway of another Sherman Avenue home. Hours later, police found Francis blocks away from that house, in possession of a lighting device. He was questioned and, subsequently, arrested.
Brill said that Francis was at the Sherman Avenue home on March 25 “for a completely innocent purpose” and “was visiting somebody socially.”
Gennario said that Francis drove his own car to Rockville Centre and parked blocks away from the victims’ houses. In each case, he allegedly stood in the backyard and lured the unsuspecting teenager with a lighting device. When he was seen, he directed the light to his genitals and began masturbating before quickly leaving the scene. He did not interact with any of the victims.
An unidentified registered sex offender who lived in the area was interviewed by police after the Feb. 5 incident because he fit the behavior pattern, but officials later found out from his probation officer that he moved to a halfway house in Brooklyn on March 1. Gennario said there was not enough information to charge that person, and there had been no incidents in the village since then until March 24.
The NYPD suspended Francis without pay for 30 days. He will be placed back on the payroll after that. Brill said that Francis was close to retirement and may step down when his suspension ends.