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PAB Figuring Out Next Step After Appeals Court Reinforces “No” to Disciplining Police Officers

Patti Singer

Police Accountability Board Executive Director Donor Dwyer Reynolds, talks with PAB member Rabbi Drorah Setel in October 2020. File photo

The Police Accountability Board has based its reason for being on its ability to discipline police officers accused and found of wrongdoing.

If the PAB can’t discipline officers, what can it do that would make it different from a civilian review board or other non-departmental oversight board?

The question has more urgency after an appeals court upheld a lower court decision that the PAB could not hold disciplinary hearings and discipline officers because it violates a portion of Civil Service Law known as the Taylor Law that relates to collective bargaining for public employees.

PAB Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds wrote in response to an emailed request for comment that the decision “was never going to be the last word on our disciplinary powers. We will be (doing) next steps in the journey to regain those powers; we just need to figure out what they are.”

The appellate court’s decision cites changes that Rochester made to its charter decades ago that surrendered the city’s prerogative to exempt police discipline from collective bargaining.

“The Rochester City Charter has been amended to grant virtually all authority for disciplining police officers to a new entity called the “Police Accountability Board” (see Local Law No. 2 [2019] of the City of Rochester). The politics swirling around this provision are weighty and fraught, but its legality is not. Local Law No. 2 is invalid insofar as it takes police discipline outside the realm of collective bargaining.”

The decision is dense with citations from precedent and references to provisions in the city charter dating to 1907.

What matters in 2021 is what exactly the PAB can and is able to do — and whether it needs nearly $5 million in funding requested in the city budget, which comes up for a vote June 15.

As for its agenda, PAB Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds wrote that it can:

  • make every part of RPD’s work transparent via complete and unprecedented access to RPD documents, databases, and officers;
  • create community-driven, evidence-based frameworks for change based on the information we discover and aggregate;
  • conduct independent investigations into complaints of misconduct — investigations that will be (unlike those in the current system) quick, transparent, and fair; and
  • educate the public about the true costs and benefits of policing in Rochester.

Reynolds said the PAB is different from the current Civilian Review Board, but the only way it can exercise its powers is with funding.

The PAB requested nearly $5 million — $1 for every $20 spent on policing, according to its calculations. Even with that amount, the PAB said it could face likely failure because it would need between 90 and 720 days to complete the average full investigation and potentially all investigations would take at least six months.

The requested amount would cover more than 50 staffers over three bureaus.

Reynolds said City Council had asked some questions after he presented the request – one of which involved the $500,000 in state funding for the PAB and another about the contract for the Civilian Review Board. He said there haven’t been additional follow-ups.

Reynolds said the budget proposal includes only funding to allow the PAB to exercise its current powers that at the moment exclude the power to discipline officers.

The proposal said that complaints tend to go up when a board can mete out discipline. If the board does get disciplinary powers, it expects to need more resources.

Data from the city showed that 375 complaints were received from 2011 through 2019.

City Council President Loretta Scott sent a statement on June 15. It read in part:

“While this is not the decision we were hoping for, we will continue to fight for the Police Accountability Board’s disciplinary powers. In the interim, the Board will continue their work in reimagining public safety in Rochester, reviewing City policies, providing recommendations to the Administration and City Council, and partnering with the community and stakeholders through this process. … “

A representative for Andrew Celli Jr., the attorney for City Council, said he had no comment.

The decision by the five-member state Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Fourth Judicial Department was unanimous. It agreed with the decision by state Supreme Court Justice John Ark in all but one point. Ark had referred the law creating the PAB back to City Council and be made compliant with state law and the city charter. The appeals court said Ark had no power to refer the challenged law back to council.