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Views of Policing Dominate Discussion as ‘Smart, Responsible’ City Budget Passes by 5-4 Vote

Patti Singer

City Council held its June 15, 2021 meeting via Zoom teleconference. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

During the Speak to Council session before City Council voted on the 2021-22 budget, most participants called for further cuts in police funding and more money for services that proponents said would reduce the need for uniformed officers.

Minutes before the vote, Council member Mary Lupien tried to introduce an amendment that would take more from Rochester Police Department, but she lacked any support from her colleagues.

Even some council members who ultimately voted for the budget, which passed by a 5-4 count, said the proposal submitted by Mayor Lovely Warren didn’t go far enough to re-imagine policing and public safety.

But they — and the mayor – acknowledged it went as far as it could given the financial constraints of a pandemic and an increase in violence amid the social upheaval of the past year that saw many residents clamoring for a new approach to public safety.

“It’s a smart budget, it’s a responsible budget,” said City Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot, who also said it doesn’t go as far as he’d like it to go.

Lightfoot along with LaShay Harris, Miguel Melendez Jr. Michael Patterson and President Loretta Scott voted for the budget. Malik Evans, Mitch Gruber, Mary Lupien and Jose Peo voted against it.

Among its efforts at reform, the budget allocates $1 million to recommendations by the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity, dedicates $4.6 million to the Police Accountability Board and creates the Office of Neighborhood Safety.

The budget allots about $90 million to the RPD, $4.4 million less than the previous year or a 4.7% reduction.

The budget has money for a 30-member recruit class, which is scheduled for November. According to data from the Rochester Police Locust Club, RPD has 40 vacancies in patrol units and 53 patrol officers out of work for reasons such as military obligations, injuries or illness, suspension or temporary assignments. There have been 57 retirements or transfers so far in 2021.

Lightfoot, who chairs the committee on public safety, recreation and human services, said his constituents have not clamored for reductions in law enforcement.

“To be quite honest with you, they want the police,” said Lightfoot, who holds an at-large seat. “And they want to see us supporting the police.”

He said those sentiments are compatible with reform and accountability.

Jose Peo, who represents the northwest, said he supports re-imagining the role of police, but he voted against the budget because “it didn’t speak to my constituents or myself who have complained far too long that we don’t have enough police to answer the vast amount of 911 calls.”

Peo, contacted after the City Council meeting, said that if someone other than a uniformed officer responds to a neighbor dispute, that person should come from the police department.

“They still need to be able to have some teeth to them so that when they come knocking on the door and they’re talking to a neighbor who is a nuisance to the community, there’s power behind that badge. And they know it, as opposed to someone showing up with a city of Rochester T-shirt and they know they can continue to get away with it because nothing’s really going to happen.”

Asked whether voting against a budget that didn’t drastically alter police services risked a more radical result, Peo said City Council realizes that many residents see the need for police.

“I felt I knew at least City Council would say, look, we need to re-imagine police. That doesn’t mean we take away funding for police.”

Several participants in Speak to Council, and some council members, said money should be invested in recreation programs and libraries. A telephone survey taken prior to the budget being prepared asked residents to rate where they thought money should go. Among respondents, 46% said public library were essential and 32% said very important. Regarding police services and crime prevention, 37% said essential and 13% said very important. Regarding R-Centers and recreation programs, 34% said essential and 40% said very important.

Mitch Gruber, who holds an at-large seat, said the budget doesn’t reflect the city’s response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 to re-imagine public safety. “We need bolder action to chart a different course.”

Melendez also advocated working toward more funding for services that could prevent violence.

Scott said that any discussion on reducing the police department needs to be based on an analysis of what Rochester needs and not simply compare Rochester to similar-sized cities that have a smaller force.

Lupien, who asked to speak last, moved to introduce an amendment that would have cut another $5 million from the police administration and operations.

Lupien apparently shared the amendment just hours before the scheduled vote and tweeted her intentions an hour prior to the meeting. She said the safest communities aren’t ones with the most police but ones with the most resources.

Council President Loretta Scott called for someone to second the motion. After 10 seconds of silence, Scott declared the motion dead.

Before the vote, Scott invited Warren to comment. She said changes to departments can be made after extensive planning and not in a hurried manner. “We have an obligation to make sure that we provide a balanced budget, but also one that provides and continues to provide the essential services to our community.”

City Council also passed the budget for the Rochester City School District.

Among its other business on a full docket, council amended the municipal code relating to offroad vehicles on public thoroughfares.

Peo initially proposed the legislation, and he voted against the amended version because it lowered fines and fees. He had proposed a fine of $650 and a fee of $2,350 to reclaim an impounded vehicle. The amended version has a tiered structure that goes from $200 to $1,000.

Peo said ATV riders said they would continue regardless of fines. “So if they’re going to keep paying an we’re lowering the dollar amount for every time they get caught, we’re not really doing any kind of work here.”