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Rochester’s Police Reform Plan Puts City at Starting Line for Change

Patti Singer

Rochester’s plan to reform policing includes recommendations on crowd control, working from a servant/protector mindset, and adding language about the sanctity of human life to policies. File photo

The police reform plan that Rochester officials and citizens have been working on for months is a beginning and not the end of the work to reimagine public safety.

“The systemic issues that plague the Rochester community, like other communities, took decades to create,” concluded the Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan. “They are complex and deep rooted. It will take time and focus to change the system while balancing the need for public safety and the professional and equitable application of policing.”

City Council scheduled a special meeting March 29 to vote, and the accepted the plan by a 5-3 margin.

Council members Miguel Meléndez, LaShay Harris, Willie Lightfoot, Michael Patterson and President Loretta Scott voted yes. Mary Lupien, Mitch Gruber and Malik Evans voted no.

“I wouldn’t call this an A-plus plan,” Meléndez said. “But I certainly feel that this will be a plan that will help us move forward and identify additional recommendations in the future that we can potentially modify the plan or add to the plan.”

Gruber said “for reasons of both process and substance” that he could not support it in its current form. 

The plan, mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo through Executive Order 203, is due to the state on April 1. Municipalities with a police force that fail to submit a plan risk losing state funding. Cuomo issued the order in June 2020, after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan is clear on next steps:

  • The RPD Chief will form a committee to turn the above recommendations into an action plan with priorities, timelines, and measures by summer 2021;
  • WilmerHale will complete their report related to use of force, de-escalation, use of body worn cameras, and responding to mental health calls; and
  • RPD will release a community policing plan, by fall 2021.

“If significant progress in RPD behavior is not accomplished within one year of the release of the Chiefs action plan, the Mayor will petition the state to allow a complete restructuring of the Police Department, similar to the actions taken in Camden NJ for restructuring their police department,” the report stated. “City Hall and the RPD are committed to working with the community and the PAB to make the changes necessary to address the issues so each and every member of the Rochester community feels safe, protected, and valued.”

However, what constituted “significant” was not defined.

WilmerHale is the law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, LLP, which the city hired in November to advise it on police reforms.

The Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative Plan consists of recommendations in accountability; community engagement and programming; data, technology and transparency; fostering a community-oriented culture; officer wellness; police policy, strategies, and practices; resizing the RPD; response to mental health calls; recruitment; training; and violence prevention.

Here are selected reform recommendations for each category.

Accountability: Seek to change state law so the city can fire immediately for cause and develop a new collective bargaining agreement; advocate for a way that future employers can learn of an officer’s discipline record; create strict rules that ban discriminatory enforcement patterns.

Community engagement and programming: The city will commit more resources (including money) for mental health programs, youth programs, job development and conflict resolution. The city will work with existing programs to find ways to improve effectiveness.

Data, technology and transparency: Recommendations intend to enhance the open data portal and RPD’s Office of Business Intelligence.

Fostering a community-oriented culture: Try to collect anonymous information from current and former officers about experiences with oppression on the force; monitor legislation that deals with officers who support or engage with hate or extremist groups.

Officer wellness: Conduct annual psychological evaluations; proactively conduct routine wellness needs assessments; reallocate funding to resources that protect officers, families and citizens from officer stress and trauma; consider appointing a Chief Resiliency Officer.

Policy, strategies and practices: Place the sanctity of human life at the core of RPD’s policing philosophy; mandate demographic data on incident reports; revise policies on de-escalation and use of force; maintain the mindset of a “servant/protector” verses a “warrior” attitude at all times in crowd control.

Resizing RPD: Reduce the budget over the next three years so it can reallocate these resources to other programs; by April 1, 2022, identify tasks handled by uniformed officers that could be handled by civilians.

Response to mental health calls: Increase the number of officers trained in crisis intervention; by the end of 2021, increase funding for first-responder systems that appropriately use non-police.
Recruitment: Overhaul the civil service hiring system; create civilian interview panels to assess candidates; change the 1975 consent decree to rebalance racial representation.

Training: Include bias training; prepare leaders for the complexities of higher level of command and responsibility; integrate training into officers’ annual review.

Violence prevention: Survey current models to identify and address gaps.

The plan was developed “through a thorough and transparent community engagement process involving a diverse range of stakeholders,” according to a letter from Mayor Lovely Warren to City Council. “The Plan is one more step in a process that will require continued community effort. It will take time and sustained focus to change systemic inequities that have existed for decades while balancing the need for public safety.”

Feedback came through several channels: an online survey in October, which received 3,223 responses; a work group consisting of city staff, City Council, Commission on Racial and Structural Equity, United Christian Leadership Ministry and Police Accountability Board; public meetings hosted by the work group.

The city released a draft in February, which received several hundred comments. Another draft was released in March and public forums were livestreamed.

The report contains an overview of the RPD — including staffing, budget, calls for service, practices and procedures, leadership and current community engagement.

The report also has appendices that show details of the process in crafting the document.

Includes reporting by Tyronda James.