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City Council Approves Police Accountability Board; Voters Get Their Say in November Referendum

Patti Singer

City Council voted unanimously to approve legislation
for the Police Accountability Board. The measure goes to voters
in the form of a referendum on Nov. 5.

Giving civilians the power to investigate and determine the merits of complaints against Rochester police officers moved one step closer as City Council on May 21 unanimously approved legislation to establish a Police Accountability Board.

However, the ultimate fate of the legislation rests with voters. The legislation calls for a referendum, which will be on the ballot Nov. 5.

“I am hopeful that they will join us in supporting this historic legislation,” City Council President Loretta Scott wrote in a statement after the vote.

If the referendum passes, the Police Accountability Board (PAB) will be housed and staffed outside the Rochester Police Department. The PAB will consist of nine community members serving three-year terms. One member will be nominated by the mayor, four members will be nominated by City Council and four members will be nominated by the Police Accountability Board Alliance.

The Rochester Police Locust Club, which works to protect the rights of police officers, tweeted after the vote: “Council members unanimously passed legislation that most of them never read. Whether in favor of this or not — elected representatives need to vote independently and only after a full understanding of what they are passing.”

The Locust Club had tweeted previously: “Just watched council vote on about 4 dozen items — all passed by a 9-0 except for one which passed 8-1. This is not representative government.”

Once the PAB is set up and fully functional for 60 days, it would replace the current Civilian Review Board.

PAB could become political

The Rev. Lewis Stewart of the United Christian Leadership Ministry called the City Council vote historic. Because voters get to weigh in, he said supporters of the legislation need to campaign for its passage.

The Rev. Lewis Stewart of the United Christian Leadership Ministry called the City Council vote historic. Because voters weigh in, he said supporters of the legislation need to campaign for its passage.

“It’s political because it’s about to become an ordinance,” he said. “We have to fight for this ordinance. … The difficult part is to develop a campaign of citizen education and awareness prior to November to highlight the benefit of the legislation and to get out the community to vote en masse in favor of it.”

Stewart said that many Rochester police officers do not live in the city and therefore lack a vested interest in the community. He said the PAB is not a magic solution to issues between police and citizens of color. “The fact is that this whole PAB is not a panacea that will make everything right. It’s a tool in a tool belt among other things, like the body-worn camera program.”

What’s in the legislation that’s in front of voters

The law says the PAB will “impartially investigate and adjudicate complaints of misconduct involving officer(s) of the RPD.” The PAB may subpoena information related to investigations and deliberations. The board will be able to use independent counsel and conduct independent investigations, and the board will be given information gathered from RPD internal investigations.

The PAB will work with the city, the RPD and the Locust Club to set up a range of disciplinary actions for sworn officers who are found to violate RPD policies “with regard to force, procedure, courtesy or conduct.” The RPD chief “will be compelled to discipline any RPD sworn officer for whom a complaint was sustained by the PAB” using the range of disciplinary actions set out by the board.

The legislation runs more than a dozen pages. Among the provisions:

  • Board members cannot be current (or within the previous three years) elected city officials or immediate family of any incumbent elected official of any municipality in New York. Practicing attorneys who represent or have represented a plaintiff or defendant in a misconduct suit against RPD also are excluded, as is their immediate family.
  • As a condition of employment, all RPD officers “shall fully cooperate” with the board. Failure to do so allows the board to send a recommendation to City Council to invoke its power under the city charter to remove the officer.
  • The board will be able to review and recommend changes to RPD regarding its policies, procedures, patterns, practices and training.
  • Complaints may come directly to the board or be referred by RPD’s internal affairs, the mayor, council, any council member or the police chief. Complaints can be made by phone, email, mail, in person or online. Complainants can decide not to have their complaint investigated.
  • The board can request that a captain or higher be available as consultant or advisor if board members have questions about specific police practices.
  • Actions by the board shall not preclude action by the criminal or civil justice system.

The legislation calls for annual training of board members and says resources may include law enforcement, attorneys and any local, state or national organizations with experience in civilian complaints. Resources may include ride-alongs and RPD training materials.

The legislation meets the five pillars called for by the Police Accountability Board Alliance :

  • An independent agency of city government, separate from RPD
  • The power to independently investigate complaints of police misconduct
  • Subpoena power to compel the production of evidence and witnesses
  • Disciplinary power
  • The power to review and evaluate RPD patterns, practices, policies and procedures to recommend systemic changes and to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place.

On its web site, the Locust Club has posted reasons it believes the PAB is unnecessary. The Locust Club said oversight of officers already includes multiple l layers of review and accountability, including the Civilian Review Board and body-worn cameras. The Locust Club also said that RPD receives the fewest complaints among large cities in the state. It reported .12 allegations of misconduct per officer, compared to .27 in Albany and .24 in Syracuse.

History of civilian oversight and Rochester Police Department

City Council passed the legislation as RPD Officer Michael Sippel was on trial for allegedly assaulting Christopher Pate in May 2018 during an arrest in what turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.

Attempts to have civilian oversight of the police department date to 1963, when City Council voted to establish a Police Advisory Board.

“Racial tensions in our (c)ity were at a boiling point, and citizen groups demanded action,” council president Scott wrote in her statement. “The establishment of the Police Advisory Board aimed to improve police and community relations and provide the people of our (c)ity justice, where they felt they had none.”

Scott wrote that the Police Advisory Board was involved in legal battles and written out of the budget. The city, she wrote “has tried for 50 long years to get it right.”

“ … We tried a Complaint Investigation Committee that lacked independence and teeth. We tried a Civilian Review Board that lacked community confidence.”

The Civilian Review Board was put in place in 1992.

Scott thanked organizations including the Locust Club and United Christian Leadership Ministry for the participation in the process.

“ … It has taken 2 years to get this legislation where it is today, 50 years to get a Council that was ready to pass it,” she wrote. “But we said we would take our time and work diligently in order to get it right. We owed it to this community to get it right, because for 50 years, the concerns of the community have been the same and the goals of police oversight have been the same. It has taken over 50 years, but today, I believe we got it right.”

To read the legislation, click the link below.

This article was updated May 23.