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Incident with 13-year-old Renews Advocates’ Call to Change Police Culture

Raw video from Dashonda Watford of encounter between her son and Rochester Police officers. Video contains strong language. Provided by Rev. Lewis Stewart.

Patti Singer

An incident involving Rochester police officers and a 13-year-old who was getting off a school bus points to a larger issue with how police deal with members of minority communities, according to advocates for racial justice.

“We have to look at elevating this conversation from the micro to the macro,” the Rev. Lewis Stewart said Oct. 2 at a news conference about the Sept. 19 confrontation between Jusmeir Mitchell and officers that was recorded by the teen’s mother.

Stewart said such incidents “represent a consistent and persistent problem in our community,” He chastised the media for focusing on how police allegedly treated Jusmeir but not probing larger issues of systemic and structural racism that he said exist in the city and among some members of the police department.

“This stuff keeps happening over and over,” Stewart said as about a dozen members of the United Christian Leadership Ministry stood behind Jusmeir, his mother Dashonda Watford and stepfather Jesse Noble at Downtown United Presbyterian Church.

“How do we change police culture, how do we change police training, how do we get rid of those cops that are causing these problems,” Stewart said. He criticized two recent court decisions that he said perpetuate such actions.

According to Stewart and the family’s attorney, Charles Burkwit, Jusmeir was on a school bus at about 7 p.m. Sept. 19, returning home from football practice. Some students in the back of the bus started arguing and the driver stopped the bus to try to quell the disruption. The driver then called her supervisor, who instructed her to pull over in front of a Wendy’s on Lake Avenue. The supervisor called 911.

According to Burkwit, Jusmeir had called his mother to pick him up and by the time Watford arrived, the teen had moved from the middle of the bus to a seat behind the driver. When Watford walked to the bus, the driver opened the door to let Jusmeir meet his mother. At that time, police arrived and approached from behind the bus.

Burkwit said the driver told police that Jusmeir was not involved in the argument on the bus. Watford told officers she was there to pick up her son.

Jusmeir Mitchell, left, and his mother, Dashonda Watford, at a news conference Oct. 2, 2019 called by the United Christian Leadership Ministry about an encounter the teen had with several officers of the Rochester Police Department. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group.

Watford said that as Jusmeir was about to meet his mother, police pulled him off the bus and told the driver to close the door. She said the officers used Mace, pulled her son to the ground and placed him in handcuffs as she screamed that they had the wrong child. She said Noble, her fiance, was Maced and handcuffed. He was charged with misdemeanors of second-degree obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest and the violation of second-degree harassment. He is scheduled back in court Oct. 8.

Rochester Police Department released the following statement in response to request for comment:

“On September 19, 2019, officers were called to the Wendy’s on Lake Avenue for the report of a fight on a school bus. Upon arriving, officers were met at the door of the bus by a student attempting to leave the bus. Officers asked the student to stay on the bus. While officers attempted to detain the student, the student’s father did physically intervene and was subsequently arrested. The student involved was released to his mother. There were no injuries reported to anyone involved.

“The Rochester Police Department’s Professional Standards Section is conducting a review of this incident and have reached out to those involved to come in and provide a statement. At this time, the parties involved have not come in to provide statements, based on the advice of their counsel. Part of the review will be to look at the body worn camera footage of the officers involved. Every use of force by an officer is subjected to supervisory review per policy.”

Burkwit said that if the department drops the charges against Noble, the family will cooperate with the investigation.

A spokesman for Mayor Lovely Warren said City Hall would defer to the police department’s statement.

Rochester Police Locust Club president Mike Mazzeo said that when officers respond to a 911 call, they have to assess the situation. He said the officers did not have an opportunity to determine what was happening “before they were confronted with a situation that distracted them.”

Mazzeo said the conversation often is about deescalation from the police side. “But there is a responsibility for civilians and people at scenes to also understand the importance of deescalating and listening and simply complying.”

Watford began filming the incident shortly after the police approached Jusmeir. Burkwit said he has not seen police body camera footage and he has asked the bus company to preserve any video from the incident.

Watford said her son was in a police car for about 45 minutes. Stewart said both Jusmeir and Noble sustained injuries, and that Jusmeir was treated the next day at Rochester General Hospital. He said the family is undergoing counseling because of the trauma of the event.

Burkwit said that after about 45 minutes, police did get on the bus. Watford said she received an apology from one of the officers.

“That was out of control for them to think a plain sorry is going to be OK, as if nothing ever happened,” she said.

Stewart said he talked with Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary on Oct. 1 about dropping the charges.

Stewart said the United Christian Leadership Ministry has proposed that officers undergo an annual psychological evaluation, that officers are screened for post-traumatic stress disorder; that the department screen officers for racist actions and that every rookie be interviewed by community members before being hired.

Stewart said some officers “treat black people as though we are less than.” He referenced other incidents between police and people of color, including Christopher Pate. Without saying their names, Stewart criticized two judges in rulings related to police cases. He alluded to City Court Judge Thomas Rainbow Morse, who found former RPD officer Michael Sippel guilty of assaulting Pate in 2018, and sentenced Sippel to three years’ probation. Stewart also alluded to state Supreme Court Justice John Ark, who placed a temporary injunction against the city’s referendum on a police accountability board.

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