Rochester City Council approves police reform plan to end union contract, reduce budget
Rochester City Council approved a future of policing plan Monday afternoon that will place much of the responsibility for future reforms on state lawmakers.
The 53-page plan details proposals to scrap the current contract with the Rochester Police Locust Club union, trim the size of the department over the next decade, immediately fire officers for cause and overhaul New York’s Civil Service hiring system. Changes to Civil Service, firing for cause, and the union contract would require action at the state level.
Council approved the plan by a 5-3 vote. Councilors Mitch Gruber, Malik Evans and Mary Lupien all voted no. Council member Jose Peo wasn’t present for the vote.
The plan will be adopted in response to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order 203, which mandated every municipality conduct comprehensive reviews in the aftermath of the police-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The order links plans to future state and federal funding levels and is due April 1.
The final plan fell short of the progressive reforms offered by the Police Accountability Board in the recommendations it made public in January. The PAB plan echoed many of the demands outlined by Black Lives Matter protesters throughout 2020.
The PAB concluded, “Rochesterians from many backgrounds appear to want a thorough reimagining of public safety, rather than piecemeal reform.” But the plan presented to City Council falls short of this reimagining. Instead, it reinforces many of the policing tenets already in place but does more to support officer well-being and mental health.
“In the Police Accountability Board, Rochester has the foundation for becoming a national model for holding the police accountable,” the plan notes. “The Police Accountability Board has a robust set of legal powers that can allow it to hold the RPD accountable.”
To put the recommendations into action, Interim Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan will form a committee and create an action plan by summer. The department will then release a community policing plan by fall. Unless it is extended, Herriott-Sullivan’s interim position only runs through June.
The plan creates a year deadline for most of the proposed reforms and says, “If significant progress in RPD behavior is not accomplished within one year of the release of the Chief’s 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.”
Council submitted a plan last Tuesday and then the administration amended three areas. That plan was delivered to the media Friday and three council members asserted they didn’t have a lot of clarity about why those changes were made. Lupien said the city law department amended the plan.
PAB chair Shani Wilson said the plan removed some of the language addressing discriminatory policing practices, resizing the department, and supporting the independence of the Police Accountability Board. https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?creatorScreenName=DandC&dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1376973262832472066&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.democratandchronicle.com%2Fstory%2Fnews%2F2021%2F03%2F29%2Frochester-ny-police-department-reform-future-plan-daniel-prude-restraint-death-cuomo-executive-order%2F6996877002%2F&siteScreenName=DandC&theme=light&widgetsVersion=e1ffbdb%3A1614796141937&width=550px
Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot and Councilor Miguel Meléndez noted the plan wasn’t perfect. They said it represented a starting point for the ongoing reform discussion. When looking at the staffing level of the department, both Mayor Lovely Warren and Lightfoot have stated this decision must be data-driven. She said the city is committed to collecting information. The plan calls for a smaller police force, but doesn’t specify the number of reductions.Your stories live here.Fuel your hometown passion and plug into the stories that define it.Create Account
The Locust Club, the union representing 700 sworn officers, expressed concerns over the plan.
“They have sought no dialogue or input from the rank-and-file officers, nor from the union which represents them,” the union said in a statement. “The Police Reform Plan presented by City Council is detrimental to the safety of the Rochester community. Homicides and violence cannot be stopped by removing and underfunding the police.”
Holding officers accountable
How do you hold an officer accountable if you don’t have the power to fire that officer? That’s one of the core questions considered by the working group and then adopted by this plan.
By June 30, city officials plan to petition the state to amend the Taylor Law, which “defines the rights and limitations of unions for public employees, and the Triborough Amendment, which makes it an improper practice for a public employer to deliberately “refuse to continue all the terms of an expired agreement until a new agreement is negotiated.”
This would give the city the ability to immediately fire RPD officers for cause and would enable the city to scrap the current collective bargaining agreement with the Rochester Locust Club, the union representing uniformed officers. The city is seeking a fresh start here.
Despite an initial suggestion from the PAB, the revised plan presented to City Council didn’t include the necessity of screening and firing officers with ties to white supremacist groups. The updated Council plan, however, does include this language.
Along with amended law changes, the city wants the state to adopt a statewide police licensing or decertification program to make sure the records of officers who are disciplined can be accessed by potential future employers.
Within 60 days, the city proposes the development of new policies related to discriminatory enforcement patterns such as structural racism, pretextual stops, and racial profiling. The plan proposes Monroe County law enforcement agencies should cease the use pretextual stops. These are stops for minor offenses to investigate other matters.
The plan promises the city “shall take whatever legal and policy steps are necessary to fully protect, support, and ensure cooperation with the PAB’s investigations into individual RPD officers as well as the RPD’s policies, practices, and procedures.”
A smaller police force?
The policing plan calls for a reduction in the RPD budget over the next three years. It does not, however, identify how much the budget will be decreased. It states these resources will be reallocated to other programs.
The plan says the department will be resized, but it does not provide any specifics in relation to how much smaller the department might get. Instead, it proposes the rehiring of a commission of public safety to have final say on budget and management.
RPD employs 701 sworn officers and 161 civilian employees, according to the department’s open data portal. When compared to other similarly sized cities, Rochester has the second most officers on a per resident basis. “Rochester has roughly twice as many officers per resident than the average city in this population range,” the plan concludes.
The city has 26% more officers than Buffalo and 27% more than Syracuse. The department’s budget for the latest fiscal year, which runs through June 31, is $93.6 million.
New policies and training initiatives
In 24 highlighted points, many with numerous subcategories, the plan outlines the policy changes for the department and a deadline for when the policies must be adopted. In the top position, it asks for the department to place the sanctity of life at the heart of its philosophy, since the current policy doesn’t contain this provision.
In response to the death of Daniel Prude, the department will develop a policy to limit the use of spit socks. It also mandates the department will, by the end of the year, adopt new laws and policies related to breathing restrictions.
“New policies should ban applying significant body weight on a handcuffed or restrained person (including a person restrained by a “spit sock”) unless exceptional circumstances are present that pose an immediate threat of harm to the person or others and no reasonable alternative is available,” the plan says.
New policies will be adopted and implement new policies and trainings for less-than-lethal weapons. The plan promises the public will be involved in the process. There will be a ban on chemical weapons, such as tear gas, a mandate that other less-than-lethal resources will only be used as a last resort, and the phasing out of chemical irritants as other alternatives are developed.
Shooting people in the upper body with a bean bag round will be banned, unless deadly force is justified. Minors under the age of 12 will not be handcuffed, “unless the juvenile presents an imminent danger to themselves or others.”
The city will research and expand the use of pre-arrest diversion programs. Irritants cannot be used on children under the age of 15.
By next year, the city will create “disciplinary rules, policies, and practices that ensure the RPD’s low-level enforcement patterns and priorities match those of Rochesterians.” It will add demographic information to incident reports using expanded data collection and streamline its handling of body worn camera footage using a new vendor.
Recruiting a diverse force
RPD sworn officers are overwhelmingly white. Of the 701 officers, 87% are white, while only 11% are Black. That doesn’t reflect the city of Rochester, which is 47% white and 41% Black. Since 1975, the department has been operating under a federal consent decree requiring 25% of sworn officers to be “minority persons.” But the department clearly falls short here.
“Currently recruitment efforts are focused on attracting candidates who are reflective of the city demographics,” the plan outlines. But is that working? The city wants to see the consent decree altered.
Many interested candidates find it difficult to complete a pass a physical agility test, police exam, and background check.
“The current recruitment and screening process is not successful in advancing diversity into the ranks of serving the community as a Police Officer,” the plan says.
To accomplish this, the city says the state’s Civil Service hiring system must be overhauled. It claims the current system is biased toward communities of color.
Newly-hired police officers would live in the city. But that would require a state law change.
Responding to mental health crises
The plan calls for an increase in funding for alternative first responder systems to replace or supplement police with social workers and other non-police personnel. It does not, however, offer any monetary specifics here.
There is also a plan to work within the court system to improve the handling of evictions.
When the death of Prude became public in September 2020, the city created the Crisis Intervention Services Office under the Department of Recreation and Human Services. That moved RPD’s Family and Crisis Intervention Team and Victim Assistance Unit to the new office.
The city also launched the Homicide Response Team and the ever-evolving Person in Crisis Team, which is available around the clock and sends emergency response social workers and mental health professionals to certain crisis calls. Up until recently, there was no co-response model within the PIC Team, meaning it was not able to respond to scenes with RPD or be summoned by police officers. That is slowly changing, because analysis revealed 43% of calls could be diverted away from law enforcement.
According to a March 12 training bulletin, “PIC, depending upon availability, will be dispatched to all calls involving mental health issues that RPD is responding to.”
With recent headline-grabbing incidents involving the pepper spraying of a handcuffed 9-year-old girl on Harris Street and the fatal shooting of a man armed with a knife outside a downtown homeless shelter, the plan mandates a significant increase in the number of officers with Crisis Intervention Team training. The goal is to have CIT-trained officers available on every shift. Currently, 125 officers have completed the training. It is not, however, calling for all officers to receive the training.
By evaluating the PIC Team, which has its pilot program running through June, the city will monitor the number of calls transitioned to PIC, its effectiveness, and track outcomes for individuals who were connected to services.
The Police Accountability Board recommended $10 million “to fund alternative first responder systems.” The City Council plan falls short of this and doesn’t offer any specific dollar amount for funding. The Council plan does call for funding to be increased. But it does create a deadline by the end of 2021 that specific emergency calls to 911 should be diverted to the Crisis Intervention Services Office when appropriate.
Warren appointed a working group, which included the Police Accountability Board, United Christian Leadership Ministry, law firm WilmerHale, the Racial and Structural Equity Commission, and Rochester Police Department, to craft the a draft.