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Police Accountability Board Enters Another Court Battle

Patti Singer

The Police Accountability Board officially is back in court.

City Council has appealed the May ruling of State Supreme Court Justice John Ark that the board could not discipline Rochester Police Department officers.

Council’s attorney, Andrew Celli, filed the paperwork shortly after noon on July 17.

“(W)e have followed through on the commitment we made in May to appeal the ruling of the Supreme Court related to the Police Accountability Board,” council said in a news release. “ … (W)e are confident the decision of the lower court will be overturned. Rochesterians voted 3 to 1 in favor of establishing a transparent Police Accountability Board that would have disciplinary authority. We are committed to continuing to fight for the voice of our citizens, and this is the next step in that process.”

City Council vice president Willie Lightfoot said in a news conference that “we are confident the decision of the lower court will be overturned.”

It will be several months before anyone knows.

The Rochester Police Locust Club will file its response to the city’s appeal, likely within 30 days. Oral arguments have not been scheduled and may not happen until September or October. There is no deadline on when the court has to rule. Celli said he is hoping for a ruling by the first quarter of next year.

In the meantime, the PAB is reviewing applicants for an executive director. However, there is one vacancy on the nine-member board as Jonathan Dollhopf resigned effective June 30. He was selected by the Police Accountability Board Alliance, which will submit names for review and council has to follow its process for appointing the replacement.

In May, Ark ruled that Local Law No. 2 could not give the PAB authority over discipline and that the law should be reworked by City Council.

The 45-page appeal filed on behalf of the city basically comes down to two questions:

  • Did the Supreme Court err in striking down a Local Law which establishes a board with authority over police discipline?
  • Did the Supreme Court err in finding that Local Law No. 2 violates, rather than amends, the Rochester City Charter?

Celli said during the news conference that over time, the Court of Appeals has ruled that localities don’t automatically have to bargain over discipline. The appeal cited several such cases.

Disciplinary power was one of five pillars of the PAB legislation, called Local Law No. 2.

Under the law, The PAB would work with the police chief and the Rochester Police Locust Club to establish a matrix to set levels of penalties. Under the law, the PAB would conduct disciplinary hearings and decide whether the officer committed misconduct and, if so, the minimum disciplinary action to be taken pursuant to the disciplinary matrix. The chief can’t impose less than the discipline determined by the PAB using the matrix but may impose additional discipline.

From the outset, the union claimed that taking discipline outside the chain of command violates civil service and state law that allows for collective bargaining. The union sued to block the referendum. However, the injunction was overturned and 75% of voters approved it.

The PAB legislation allows for severability, meaning if one part of the law is struck down the rest are not affected. The board has been working on its bylaws and its procedures. The other pillars of the PAB are that it is

  • an independent agency of city government, separate from RPD
  • has the power to independently investigate complaints of police misconduct
  • has subpoena power to compel the production of evidence and witnesses
  • has the power to review and evaluate RPD patterns, practices, policies and procedures to recommend systemic changes and to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place.