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Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Introduces its Reform and Reinvention Plan

Patti Singer

Monroe County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Michael Fowler, center, takes questions in January from Monroe County legislators about the proposed plan to reform the MCSO. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group from YouTube

The Monroe County Sheriff’s Office unveiled a five-point plan to improve transparency, enhance leadership, live a culture based on respect, perform more outreach and support mental health of the public and its deputies.

The plan is part of law enforcement reform mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo under Executive Order 203, which he signed in June in the midst of nationwide unrest over police misconduct after the death of George Floyd. Under the order, each local government must adopt a police reform plan that will maintain public safety while building trust between police and the communities they serve. Plans are due to the governor by April 1. Municipalities that don’t comply risk losing state funding for law enforcement.

In the past few weeks, various police agencies and organizations that are part of reform efforts have submitted preliminary reports or talked about initiatives.

Among them:

  • Police Accountability Board in December released a draft based on research and input from about 30 people, some of whom represented the city’s marginalized communities. The report identified themes of reapportioning funding, having an alternative first-response model and more community control of policing.
  • United Christian Leadership Ministry in December submitted its report to the Racial and Structural Equity (RASE) Commission. The report called for establishing a citizens’ panel to interview applicants to the police academy; establishing a racial justice education/training curriculum; conduct training in de-escalation; encourage all law enforcement to use body-worn cameras; and enhance pre-arrest diversion programs.

Chief Deputy Michael Fowler presented the MCSO preliminary plan earlier in January to the Monroe County Legislature Public Safety Committee.

The committee was scheduled to provide its input and make the plan available for public comment.

Public Safety Committee chairwoman Karla Boyce was not available for comment. A spokeswoman for the Republican Caucus wrote in an email that the plan will come before the legislature prior to being submitted to the state. A date was not given.

Reports from other law enforcement agencies are expected to be delivered to their municipalities.

The Monroe County Law Enforcement Council, made up of the Rochester Police Department, town and village departments and the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office, announced a commitment to train every law enforcement officer in crisis intervention. Currently 450 of approximately 1,200 officers are trained, but the goal is to have all patrol officers educated in how to intervene in a mental health crisis.

The council has scheduled a news conference for Jan. 19 to provide details.

The Sheriff’s Office plan is modeled after former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The plan has been in development since August and a deputy was assigned full-time to the project.

Fowler outlined initiatives in five areas:

  • Transparency and trust in the community: Using a website and app to provide resources for help with problems related to mental health, domestic violence, addiction and poverty; forming a citizen interaction committee and posting a survey to gauge community needs; maintaining state accreditation; educating the public on tactics and training.
  • Leadership and training: Emphasizing a guardian mindset that prioritizes selfless service and compassion; expanding multicultural training; researching ways to train future leaders in effective communication and the MCSO role in the community.
  • Instill a values-based culture: Changing the evaluation and the promotion process to focus on desired traits and not just test scores; enhance recruitment to attract a diverse workforce; use data to determine appropriate staffing.
  • Community engagement: Build relationships between deputies and the communities they serve through mentoring, neighborhood walks, open houses and youth outreach.
  • Crisis intervention support: Expanding the quality of care offered to deputies after a critical incident and to help with daily stress; researching a collaborative response among social workers, psychologists and law enforcement to a person in crisis.

Fowler said that since 1994, calls for service have increased overall, although some years have seen a slight dip. However, the number of deputies available to respond has stayed the same.

From 2016 through 2020, the most number of calls have been for larceny, domestic violence and simple assault.

Fowler also said that from 2015 to 2019, deputies who stopped a vehicle for a traffic infraction issued a ticket 43% of the time. Slightly more than half the citations were issued to whites and about one-quarter were issued to Blacks.

From 2015 to 2019, whites made up 62% of arrests under penal law and Blacks made up 37%.

In a survey conducted with Roberts Wesleyan College, respondents said the top three areas for MCSO to address were preventing violence, providing more training for deputies about racial bias in policing and addressing and preventing substance abuse.

The survey had fewer than 1,500 respondents, out of a population of more than 700,000 residents. About half the respondents were from Chili, Henrietta, Rochester and Pittsford.