The Police Accountability Board, claiming the city has stymied its requests for information, has retained a law firm to help it get documents it said are necessary for its investigation into police policies, practices and procedures.
Meanwhile, the city said it has been working on a memorandum of understanding with the PAB for release of information.
PAB Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds said March 25 that the city for months has not responded to requests relating to incidents involving people in crisis.
As a result, the PAB engaged Shearman & Sterling, an international firm based in New York City. The firm will work for the PAB without charge, meaning taxpayers will not be responsible.
“We are not going to be on the hook for anything,” Reynolds said “They will go to bat for us because they think it’s the right thing to do.”
The firm has worked with public interest groups to settle a class action lawsuit over the New York Police Department’s stop and frisk policy. It also sued the Rochester Police Department last year over its refusal to cooperate with the New York Civil Liberties Union’s request for police disciplinary records.
Shearman & Sterling partner Philip Urofsky said in a news release, “The fate of police reform hinges on the success of organizations like the PAB. We look forward to ensuring that city officials understand the law and fully cooperate with the PAB’s efforts to make Rochester’s public safety system equitable, fair, and transparent.”
Reynolds said Shearman & Sterling will “be making sure the city cooperates with our current request for information, essentially ensure the city complies with the law, help us develop whatever policies, procedures, rules we need to facilitate the city’s cooperation … and if necessary file subpoenas, lawsuits, whatever we need to make sure compliance happens.”
Reynolds said the PAB has two open investigations – one into the incident on Harris Street in which an officer used pepper spray on a 9-year-old and another into the actions of RPD during last year’s protests.
Reynolds said that as an arm of government the PAB does not have to file Freedom of Information requests to receive documents. He said the law requires the city to furnish documents upon request.
The city and the PAB on March 24 finalized a draft of a memorandum of understanding that governs release of information from the RPD to the board, according to the city.
“The Administration continues to make every effort to provide the Police Accountability Board (PAB) with any and all existing information requested for its ongoing reviews,” spokesman Justin Roj said in a statement. ” … We continue to cooperate fully with the PAB in accordance with City Charter and continue to support their efforts to review the actions of our police department. We encourage them to move forward.”
According to the city, the PAB doesn’t have a process for how it will request documents. The MOU lists information that must be included and provides a contact person in the RPD.
Among the 14 points in the MOU:
- There is no basis to hold back records from PAB due to confidentiality, pending law enforcement investigation, personnel issues, privilege or any other legal exclusion from public dissemination.
- Disclosure to the PAB of existing records should be prompt and should generally be within five (5) business days of request. If such a timeline is not possible, an articulated reason and deadline must be provided.
- The MOU shall be reviewed after the creation of PAB’s internal policies and procedures. Any party to this MOU may request that it be reviewed one year from the date of execution.
- In the interest of efficiency of the staff that has to fulfill the request, the PAB shall, generally, indicate how the request relates to those powers and duties. At the same time, it is understood that requests by the PAB may be voluminous and must still be honored.
- The PAB has subpoena power under the city charter and may use that power as they deem necessary and consistent with the charter.
- As soon as practical but within 24 hours, the city will notify the PAB of any incident between the RPD and a civilian that results in death or serious injury.
- The city will create and maintain a “PAB Access Room” located at (https://cityofrochester.gov/PABAccessRoom/) where electronic versions of all records requested by PAB, including body worn camera and other surveillance footage, are placed and are fully downloadable. The city will try to place requested records in the PAB Access Room within five days of PAB’s written request. (The PAB site is restricted to the board. The city just launched a website where it will post redacted versions. The site is www.cityofrochester.gov/pabfiles/.)
Reynolds said the memorandum of understanding was negotiated by City Council’s attorney and by Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin. He said the PAB was not at the negotiations but was asked for opinion on some points.
He said the PAB has been seeking its own counsel for months. He said the MOU may or may not be beneficial to the PAB. “We need a lawyer dedicated to our interests to help us decide whether it works,” he responded in a text. “But here’s the important point: The law is clear, the city needs to provide us with the documents we request.”