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City, RPD Hit by Class Action Lawsuit to Stop Excessive Force and Racial Profiling

Patti Singer

Nicholas Robertson, front right, is among plaintiffs in a class action civil rights lawsuit against the city and Rochester Police Department filed April 5, 2021. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group.

Ten individuals and two organizations have filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and the Rochester Police Department to end what plaintiffs call the department’s “years-long, unchecked practice of using unconstitutional excessive force disproportionately against people of color.”

The civil rights lawsuit, filed April 5 in U.S. District Court, seeks to bar the city and its agents from using excessive force and racially-biased policing.

“ … (A) stunning historical record spanning more than four decades demonstrates that the Rochester Police Department’s use-of-force practices continue to be inhumane, racist, and antithetical to the functioning of a civilized society,” the lawsuit said, citing violations of the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“Yet, the city is either unwilling or unable to stop these practices,” the complaint continued. “Time and time again, going back decades, the city and RPD have made hollow promises of reform but the culture of violent, racialized policing has not changed.”

The suit details more than 50 incidents of what it said are uses of force against people of color, including incidents in which people died. However, the focus is on incidents within the past three years, which are within the statute of limitations.

“This lawsuit calls on the Court to fulfill its most fundamental role — to protect and defend the Constitution. The need for meaningful change in the Rochester Police Department is real and for people of color in Rochester, it could not be more urgent. Plaintiffs bring this suit to end the RPD’s decades-long use of violent, unconstitutional force — before more lives, more Black and brown lives, are lost,” according to the document.

The lawsuit also seeks an independent federal monitor to reform the RPD.

Plaintiffs seek unspecified monetary awards and demand a jury trial.

Plaintiffs Anthony Hall, Stanley Martin, Nicholas Robertson, Devorah Chatman, Reynaldo DeGuzman, Emily Good, Lore McSpadden-Walker and Emily McIntyre claimed excessive force on May 30, Aug. 2, Sept. 2, 3, 4, 5, 12 and 16 and Oct. 13, 2020. Not all plaintiffs alleged they were victims of incidents on each of those days.

Winona Miller alleged excessive force on Sept. 16, 2020. Dynasty Buggs alleged she was violently arrested and pepper sprayed Dec. 18, 2019.

Other plaintiffs are Free the People Roc, which is suing on its behalf and on that of members, and National Lawyers Guild Rochester, which said it has had members subject to aggressive policing and incommunicado detention.

The plaintiffs are represented by Elliot Shields, Nick Brustin, Joshua Moskovitz and Donald Thompson.

Moskovitz said there would be opportunities in the coming months for others to seek to join the lawsuit. He indicated that the suit could take years.

At an online news conference, each of the plaintiffs issued a statement.

Among them:

  • Chatman, a combat veteran, said she can relate to the risk that police officers take, but she can’t relate to what she said is a lack of training to serve in the neighborhoods on their beat. “In order for things to change and change to come, the RPD will have to hold itself to a higher standard without being above the law,” she said. “They should try harder to win the hearts and minds of the people instead of racially profiling people of color. They should start acknowledging when their officers are wrong and punish them as such. You can’t change what you don’t acknowledge.”
  • McSpadden-Walker said the “excessive force used against myself and other protesters did not occur in a vacuum. They were the physical manifestations of the culture of racism and excessive force that permeates the Rochester Police Department and the greater Rochester area. We are here … as representatives of the countless people who have been brutalized, traumatized and unjustly treated by the city of Rochester and the Rochester Police Department. … Too many lives have been lost and the work of people has been too long disrespected and devalued.”
  • Hall said the community “demands that the Rochester Police Department and city officials take action.”

Defendants include Mayor Lovely Warren, former RPD Chief La’Ron Singletary, Interim Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter.

City Hall issued a statement in response to the suit:

“Mayor Warren welcomes a review by the United States Department of Justice. In fact, in September of last year, Mayor Warren formally called upon them to conduct a thorough investigation of the Rochester Police Department and to offer reforms to address any and all civil rights violations that might be found.”

The statement said the city’s Executive Order 203, the response to the governors’ call for reform, includes the mayor’s ability to fire officers for cause, revising the federal consent order that effectively caps the number of minority officers at 25%, requiring newly hired officers to live in the city and numerous other changes to limit the use of force by officers.

The lawsuit lists allegations of excessive force against officers and what, if any, discipline they faced. The suit mentions whether the city settled any claims.

Some of the recent cases relate to protests after the death of Daniel Prude was made public on Sept. 2 by an attorney for the family.

Other allegations involve the pepper spray incident of the child on Harris Street and the pepper spray incident on the woman who was with her child on Portland Avenue.

The suit named a handful of officers who have been involved in recent high-profile cases. The complaint reserved the ability to name others by citing hundreds of “John Doe” Rochester Police Department Officers “Richard Roe” sheriff’s deputies and “Sally Sue” New York state troopers. The generic designations are placeholders for individuals not yet identified and the attorneys expect to list more names as the process of discovery moves ahead.

RPD has been subject to other lawsuits, but attorney Shields said this one is different because of the scale of the class action and the scope of allegations.

“We’ve gathered more stories than other lawsuit has ever gathered and laid it out in a comprehensive way to show that based on the narrative that we put together and based on the numbers … we were able to show based on RPD’s own data the history of system racism, and use of excessive force against people of color in Rochester is undeniable.”

Before the governor’s mandate of Executive Order 203 and this lawsuit, there also have been efforts at reform.

“Too many of those cases have been looked at in a silo,” said Moskovitz. “This case brings history to bear. … This is about real change now.”