The Rochester Police Department will protect citizens’ right to peacefully protest but will order people to disperse if the situation turns violent.
RPD held a news conference Jan. 27 to release its “Rules for Engagement for Gatherings and Protests.”
Interim Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said police had no knowledge of a specific event that prompted the announcement.
New York state Attorney General Letitia James has yet to release the result of the grand jury investigation into the in-custody death of Daniel Prude. Also, an appeals court decision is pending on whether the Police Accountability Board will be able to discipline RPD officers.
“We have to prepare ourselves for different decisions that are going to be coming,” she said. “My goal is to set a tone, to make it clear (citizens) have a right to protest and that our job is to assist them in doing that.”
She said criminal or violent behavior does not fall under a peaceful protest. She said that peaceful protests can get hijacked and create situations that endanger public safety.
“We’re letting our protesters, the public, direct the response,” she said. “If there’s peaceful demonstrators, there’s little for us to do. When it crosses into riotous, violent behavior, then that would direct the actions we would take.”
She said RPD was working on its plan before the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. But when asked what turns a peaceful protest into a threatening action, she pointed to the breach of the barricades outside the building. She said the barricades represent a type of safe zone for protesters to exercise free speech.
“Once those barricades were crossed, it changed things,” she said. “People had a sense they could come and break into the building and do whatever they felt they needed to do.”
Here is the Rules of Engagement statement released by RPD:
“The Rochester Police Department supports the rights of our citizens to peacefully protest as the U.S. Constitution allows. As a police department, our primary goal is to maintain public safety, preserve life, and to keep the peace. We ask that anyone wishing to peacefully protest refrain from partaking in or being involved with anyone that acts or commits acts of violence or crimes during any protest or gathering.
In the event there are crimes being committed or acts of violence taking place, your police department may give warnings to disperse. If this takes place and warnings are given, it is unlawful to remain in an area once being directed to disperse.
Lastly, keep in mind, COVID-19 is real and continues to spread at a rapid pace. Large gatherings are a risk to everyone’s health (emphasis theirs).”
Herriott-Sullivan said the goal was to be transparent and to work with the public to address concerns. She said she has met with organizers.
“We want to … make sure we’re sending a consistent message,” she said. “So people understand if they come, what the rules of engagement are. We want people to feel free to come and voice their objections to the government. … We also want people to be safe.”
Herriott-Sullivan and Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson came on after former Chief La’Ron Singletary was fired and the command staff resigned or stepped down after city leaders and the public reacted to learning in September of Daniel Prude’s death six months earlier.
During protests in September, police were criticized for use of pepper spray, among other tactics, to disperse protesters. Anderson was not specific about tactics, other than to say de-escalation would be a focus and use of dogs would be avoided.
However, scrutiny of actions from protests in the fall continue, and on Jan. 26, the Police Accountability Board said in an update to City Council that it would investigate the RPD response during the protests.
“I understand that’s their charter, that’s their purpose,” Herriott-Sullivan said. “We’ll do what we can to support the information they need to look into those kinds of things. My goal is by the time they’ve done looking at it, we’ve already addressed any issues and have moved on to the next.”