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Locust Club Sues to Stop Referendum on Police Accountability Board

Patti Singer

The Rochester Police Locust Club has sued to block a referendum on a Police Accountability Board. File photo

The Rochester Police Locust Club has sued the city of Rochester over its plans to put a referendum on the Police Accountability Board on the November ballot.

This is the second time in the past few months that the city was sued over a potential referendum item. The Rochester City School District took the city to court in July over a proposal to let residents vote on a short-term state takeover of the district. A court decision in August ruled for the district and knocked the referendum off the ballot. On Sept. 4, the city lost an appeal of that decision.

The Locust Club filed the suit Sept. 9 in state Supreme Court. The suit, filed on behalf of the Rochester Police Locust Club Inc., Michael Mazzeo and Kevin Sizer, names the city, Mayor Lovely Warren, City Council and the Monroe County Board of Elections.

Locust Club president Mazzeo said the lawsuit had been in the works for a while. He said he had been out of the country, which delayed the filing. He said the similarity to the school board’s suit is only that both are about referendums.

According to its website, The Locust Club is “dedicated to improving working conditions, wages and benefits, and to monitoring legislation at all levels of government to protect police officers’ rights and to continually improve law enforcement in Rochester.”

In May 2019, City Council passed legislation that would allow for residents to vote on creating a Police Accountability Board. The referendum would have been the latest and possibly most definitive step in having citizen oversight of the police department. Such attempts dated to 1963, when City Council voted for a Police Advisory Board. But that board eventually was written out of the city budget.

When City Council passed legislation in May for a vote on a proposed new iteration of civilian oversight, Council President Loretta Scott thanked the Locust Club, among other organizations, for participating in the process.

The referendum language approved by City Council would:

  • amend the Rochester City Charter to authorize the creation of the Police Accountability Board (PAB).
  • have the PAB consist of nine unpaid Rochester residents: one appointed by the Mayor and eight appointed by the City Council; four of the Council’s appointees will be nominated by a coalition of community organizations. 
  • give the PAB the power to independently investigate civilian complaints, subpoena information for its investigations, and determine whether individual officers have committed misconduct.
  • let the PAB create disciplinary guidelines, with an opportunity for input from the Chief of Police and the police union. 
  • if, after a hearing, that an officer has committed misconduct, require the chief of police to impose discipline consistent with disciplinary guidelines.
  • let the PAB recommend changes to the Police Department’s policies, practices, and training.

The legislation was passed as Rochester Police officer Michael Sippel was on trial for allegedly assaulting Christopher Pate in May 2018. City Court Judge Thomas Rainbow Morse, in a bench trial, in May 2019 found Sippel guilty of misdemeanor assault. Sippel was fired by the department. His sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 16.

The Locust Club lawsuit claims that changes to Local Law No. 2, which would allow the referendum, are illegal because they violated several aspects of Civil Service law; the New York State Constitution; the U.S. Constitution; the city and Locust Club’s collective bargaining agreement; and other laws and provisions of the city charter.

The Locust Club seeks a permanent injunction from placing the referendum on the ballot and removing it if it’s already there.

“I’m disappointed it really even had to get to this,” Mazzeo said.

He said the perception that the suit is because the union is against accountability is false. The issue, he said, is about collective bargaining rights.

“It took a long period of time to get certain languages within the collective bargaining agreement,” he said. “It takes years to get where we are in the CBA. Part of this legislation just completely pushes that aside and that’s wrong.”

A spokeswoman for the mayor said the city “has no comment on this pending litigation in the interest of protecting taxpayers.”

As with the lawsuit over the school board referendum, timing is an issue. The Board of Elections needed a speedy resolution to that suit because it said it had to print the ballot well ahead of the Nov. 5 election.

Colleen Anderson, the Democratic Commissioner for the Board of Elections, said that military, absentee and overseas ballots have to go out no later than Sept. 20. “They’re going to go out regardless of this decision, if it’s not made because we have to go to print on them. Other than that, we’re remaining neutral.”

She said the board was named in the suit likely because it is responsible for putting the the referendum on the ballot. Mazzeo confirmed that reason.

This story was updated Sept. 11 with comments from Locust Club president Michael Mazzeo.