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Body Cam Footage of Portland Avenue Incident Raises More Questions About RPD Training

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Members of the Police Accountability Board at an online news conference March 5 about an incident on Portland Avenue in which an officer used pepper spray on a woman whose child was present. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

The latest incident involving Rochester police and a mother with her young child raises concerns not just about police response but questions about how and when Rochester police can involve social workers or mental health professionals, and the steps the city and the police department take to release body-worn camera footage.

At 9 a.m. March 5, the Police Accountability Board held an online news conference about footage that it said was provided to them the night before by City Council President Loretta Scott.

Scott released a statement later on March 5 that read in part:

” … After learning of this incident, I requested that Chief Herriott-Sullivan share the body worn camera footage with me and the members of the City Council. After viewing this video, I am even more convinced that the current culture, policies and procedures of RPD must be changed immediately. … I once again call for revised training for all RPD officers for the betterment of our community, and the health and safety of our citizens.”

The statement did not address her release of the video to the PAB.

The PAB did not release the RPD footage, saying it did not have the resources to redact “hours of footage” but hoped that the full footage would be released immediately.

Asked if the news conference was a way pressure the city and RPD, Rabbi Drorah Setel said the incident was information “we believe the community should know about.” She said the legal department of city is obliged to represent the police department. “When we request things from the city, their concern is protecting the police department.”

About an hour later, RPD sent a news release describing the incident and a link to the video at https://youtu.be/nzyR51_FvrA.

A spokesman for the Rochester Police Department said it planned to release all of the video as soon as the redactions and notifications were complete. The RPD is required by its contract with the police union to give all officers who appear in body camera footage, regardless of their role in the incident, 24 hours before release.

The PAB posted a 2 minute 51 second clip from a security camera where the encounter occurred.

According to the RPD statement, officers responded at about 4:30 p.m., Feb. 22 to the area of 535 Portland Ave. for the report of a female shoplifter who was arguing with store employees and refusing to leave. An officer approached a female who matched the description. She had a child with her. The woman and the officer tussled and the officer used pepper spray. The child was not hit by the pepper spray or injured.

The woman was charged with trespassing and given an appearance ticket. The officer has been placed on administrative duty until an internal investigation has been completed, according to RPD.

Mayor Lovely Warren viewed the body camera footage on Feb. 23 and directed RPD to make the redactions and then release the video. After the PAB announcement of the video, she released a statement that read in part:

“These videos are certainly disturbing. That’s why Chief Herriott-Sullivan is not waiting for the Executive Order 203 process to be completed. She is working to make sweeping, but necessary, policy and procedure changes along with mandatory training for officers regarding racism and implicit bias. The last month of community engagement has given her the ability to see the immediate changes that must take place while also working towards the systemic change included in the Executive Order 203 draft plan.”

Warren wrote that an updated plan based upon community feedback will submitted to City Council for review. The mayor also is seeking that New York allow the city “to immediately terminate officers for cause. Change will not come until we have the ability to fully hold our officers accountable when they violate the public’s trust.”

Rochester Police Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo said since body cameras started to be used in 2016, “they have been used to criticize and discipline. They have not been used to improve. That should be the number one most essential use of those cameras.”

He said the incidents of the past year have not resulted in changes in policy, procedure or training, and said that is a failure of city and RPD leadership.

At a news conference later in the day, Deputy Executive Chief Andre Anderson said the RPD would be instituting policies and training on de-escalation, including duty to intervene; compassion fatigue; mindset and leadership for officers and supervisors. He did not say when the training would start.

The PAB started the day’s events with a statement about the video that described scenes where the officer “tackles and pepper sprays” the mother while another male officer “tries to pull the child away from her mother.” The PAB statement also described an officer telling a bystander to “shut the hell up and get out of here” and an officer using a car to block public view of the crying child as another says, “it doesn’t look good that I have to restrain … a three year old.”

The clip from the security camera shows the first officer tussling with the mother and the arrival of the second officer, who gets out of his car and goes to the child. When the officer and the mother stand up, it appears the mother reaches for the child’s hand. The first officer appears to use pepper spray on the mother as she grabs for the child while the second officer tries to loosen the mother’s grip and move the child away.

At the RPD news conference, Herriott-Sullivan said that separating the child from the incident was appropriate and an action that she would expect to see.

The body camera footage shows the struggle from different angles. It also shows officers talking with bystanders, one of whom asks an onlooker to make a deposition as to what he witnessed.

Footage also shows an officer talking with the child, presenting her with two books and asking which one she’d like to read with him. An officer then begins reading from one of the books before the child’s grandmother comes to get her, but because of the number of video clips and their perspective, it’s hard to tell if it is the same officer.

As for the comment the PAB cited about an officer requesting a car to block the public view, the comment is made as he tries to calm the child, asking for her name, and saying that she can sit in the car with her mother. From a distance, it can appear he is restraining her when he is trying to get her to look at him so he can settle her down.

Other footage in the 1 hour 48 minute compilation captures conversation between the second officer on the scene and the woman as he takes her to Public Safety Building to wash her eyes and for processing on the charge.

The body camera footage also shows an interview with an officer and store employees.

According to the PAB statement, one officer said he tried to call the Family and Crisis Intervention Team, which in the move to reform policing has been moved out of the RPD to the Department of Recreation and Human Services. According to the PAB account of the incident, an officer said of FACIT, “They said they’re not even logged in yet.” PAB said it did not appear that anyone from a crisis team responded while the woman was still on the scene.

A city spokesman later said that FACIT was called and in the process of responding but the call was cancelled because the child’s grandmother came to the scene.

The role of mental health professionals has been a focus of reimagining public safety and the response to 911 calls since the community learned of the death of Daniel Prude. It was central to the discussion in February, after video was released of police using pepper spray on a distraught 9-year-old.

However, in the ensuing weeks, RPD reported at least two occasions where officers called the county’s Forensic Intervention Team, which responds. The city started a Person in Crisis team, but under the current pilot protocol it is limited in the calls it takes and RPD is not able to summon them. However, the goal is that by April, RPD will be able to call the Person in Crisis team. Changes to the dispatch system need to be made before that can happen.

The PAB also said it has asked the city to provide it with the training documents for the RPD regarding use of pepper spray, the handling of children and handling of people in crisis, and written directives for the FACIT and PIC teams. It said the city has not provided the information.