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Thursday 21 January 2021
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Police Accountability Board Busy With Reform Initiative, Hiring Staff

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Conor Dwyer Reynolds, center, and Shani Wilson, right, with other members of the Police Accountability Board in October 2020. File photo.

The Police Accountability Board continues to await word on whether it will have the power to discipline Rochester Police Department officers found to have violated policies and procedures.

While that case remains with an appeals court, the board stays busy.

The PAB was part of a working group put together by Mayor Lovely Warren in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s mandate that communities develop a plan to reimagine their public safety system.

In December, the PAB released a draft report that addressed several questions that go to the core of what public safety could look like for Rochester. The report was based on research by the board and on responses from about 30 people, some of whom represented the city’s marginalized communities.

The board is now seeking feedback on that report, which is online at cityofrochester.gov/pab/answers. Residents have until Jan. 15 to send their comments to pab@cityofrochester.gov.

The PAB also is looking to hire two people for newly created senior staff positions, posted at www.cityofrochester.gov/jobopportunities/. One will oversee the board’s internal processes and the other will be responsible for the board’s communications and public engagement.

Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds and board chairperson Shani Wilson talked to Minority Reporter about the draft report and the expanding staff. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

The draft report contains responses from individuals to specific questions. How were those people contacted?

Reynolds: The city had released that survey in November on policing. About 2,000 people responded. …We wanted to hear from specific populations that either are traditionally not at the table when it comes to government decision-making or folks who have deep experience with the public safety system. … We reached out to organizations and people who we knew could connect us with folks who might be willing to provide that testimony.

Did those responses inform the answers to the questions you were assigned?

Reynolds. Yes. The responses are different. One person said nothing needs to change with the Rochester Police Department. Some people said we need to get rid of the police almost entirely. Despite the diversity, there were some themes. There seems to be a sense that the public safety funds may not be spent correctly. There’s a sense there needs to be some kind of fundamental shift in an alternative first-response model – we need to have more social workers, mental health professionals respond to these calls. The third theme is there needs to be more community control of policing.

Were these first voices handpicked?

Reynolds: There wasn’t any handpicking any particular person on the changes. … We wanted a cross section of voices. What I will promise is the PAB in this broader work is absolutely going to reach out … . We’re considering surveys, public engagement events.

Since you are not accepting more testimonials right now, what do you want from the public about this report?

Reynolds: What we’re really look for is feedback so we can identify final recommendations. The feedback we’ve received is … we’d like the PAB to say the police department should not be involved in evictions. Feedback is you (said) substitute police with mental health professionals. You should use complement with mental health professionals. … You need a clear call for a different dispatch system (to send social workers to respond).

There’s been a lot of talk about what the community wants in its public safety system. But the city is diverse. When we talk about community, can we ever get consensus? Or will it be more of a tapestry?

Wilson: The tapestry I think is key because I think there are different communities that want something different. But I also think that divided by the color line that’s also a huge difference as to what people think is actually happening here versus what people know is actually happening here. When community talks to other community members and actually meet in the middle and meet in the middle and have a real discussion about what actually happens on the street, it will open a lot of eyes. I think the summer and the fall opened a lot of eyes about what policing actually is here. … I think fundamentally everybody wants to be safe. They want to feel safe.

The RPD was part of the working group, and it was given questions about officer wellness. The PAB also has talked about that. Why is officer mental health and wellness part of reimagining public safety?

Wilson: That plays a key role in how they interact with the public. … I hope the community reports and the community outreach will give a well-rounded picture as to what policing looks like. Police engagement is important. Hopefully the way to engage officers is to say, look we know what you’re thinking and we really want the public to hear from you. We want the public to understand the job you’re doing every day is tough, so why don’t you tell them. But then understand everybody has a story and I hope they’ll be able to listen to the community as well.

The PAB has posted two positions that would seem to overlap some duties of the executive director. Can you explain the roles?

Reynolds: We’ve discovered that the board has a lot of work to do. … It turns out that a lot of administration day to day, the logistics, we need someone specific to do that. If I were solely to do all of the budgeting and procurement and meeting scheduling, that would be about 75% of my job. Same with communication with that public engagement role. We need someone who can manage the social media feeds, who can focus on how can we get Rochesterians heard and engaged in these processes.

How much staff do you envision?

Reynolds: These staff are crafted toward the work the PAB must do and can do given its powers. If we get (discipline) powers back, you’re going to need additional staff to handle those powers. I also expect us to need additional staff the more things we have to do. … In the City Charter it says we have to establish a civilian control process for officer discipline. It’s not the only core mission. … The broadest mission is ensuring public accountability and transparency over all the powers exercised by the RPD. There’s about 900 people in the Rochester Police Department. The Police Accountability Board job is to ensure all of their work is transparent and that all the things they do, they are accountable for. You can start thinking about resources you need to fill that broad mission.