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Police Accountability Board to Get Another Day in Court

Patti Singer

Supporters of the Police Accountability Board attended a news conference in September about the PAB’s ability to hire staff. File photo

The issue of whether the Police Accountability Board can discipline Rochester police officers will have another day in court.

Rochester City Council announced on Nov. 24 that the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, will hear an argument by council that the PAB should be able to have discipline powers over RPD officers.

“The Court of Appeal’s decision to hear this case is a critical step in upholding the will of Rochester’s voters to create and empower a strong Police Accountability Board,” Andrew G. Celli Jr., council’s lawyer with the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, wrote in a news release announcing that the Court of Appeals would hear the case.

“At a legal level, it gives the council the opportunity to demonstrate that history, law, and Court of Appeals precedents all fully support the city’s power to control its police officers, and that the PAB is a lawful exercise of that power,” Celli wrote.

According to the City Council release, the Court of Appeals was not required to hear the appeal from the lower court. Council said that the Court of Appeals’ move “signals the legal importance of the case, both to Rochester and statewide.”

Whether the PAB can discipline officers has been a contentious point since Rochester voters approved a referendum in 2019 to establish the entity. The Rochester Police Locust Club went to court to block those powers, citing state law places discipline powers within the police chain of command.

State Supreme Court Justice John Ark ruled in May 2020 that the PAB did not have discipline powers, and an appeals court upheld that ruling. The lower appeals court cited changes that Rochester made to its charter decades ago that surrendered the city’s prerogative to exempt police discipline from collective bargaining.

Council and its attorneys maintained that the city’s 1907 charter, still in effect, gives the city the right to control the disciplinary process for police officers locally, rather than under state laws enacted decades after the charter was granted to Rochester by the State Legislature.

“We look forward to continuing the fight to reinstate the PAB’s deserved disciplinary powers,” City Council president Loretta C. Scott wrote in the news release.

The announcement from City Council did not say when the Court of Appeals would hear the case.

The Locust Club said the Court of Appeals will be hearing the same legal issues that resulted in the previous two rulings.

Locust Club president Mike Mazzeo wrote in response to a request for comment: “It is obvious in those decisions that considerable legal review was undertaken as evidenced by the detail in the written decisions.

“The continued emphasis on challenging strong court decisions that the city’s own attorneys and our concerns echoed and were provided initially to city council shows that political agendas versus responsibility of their positions have dictated their course of actions.”

He called “incredulous” the effort of City Council on the PAB legislation and not on efforts to recruit or retain officers given the unprecedented violence in the city and the loss of officers to retirement and resignation.

Even with its discipline powers in limbo, the PAB is working on policies and procedures and is in the process of hiring staff. The PAB received $5 million in the budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.

Outside of the PAB, another citizen interaction with the RPD is underway. Earlier in November, the city and the United Christian Leadership Ministry signed an agreement that established a civilian interview panel that will recommend candidates. However, the chief retains ultimate authority over who is hired. Information about the Civilian Public Safety Interview Panel will be posted on the city website.