Rochester, N.Y. – Rochester City Council said it plans to take on City Hall on the issue of police oversight. It will likely table legislation from Mayor Lovely Warren in favor of a plan that would likely require a change to the city charter and give some community groups a bigger say in police discipline.
“The police are policing themselves. It undermines the community’s ability to trust that process,” said City Council President Loretta Scott.
Last May, a wrongful arrest was caught on cell phone video. Christopher Pate was struck with a stun gun and beaten in the face. One of the two RPD officers involved was eventually charged with a crime.
Community advocates say the victims need a voice at the table when it comes to investigating these incidents and particularly in doling out police discipline.
“We can’t just always take a police officer’s word or the police union president’s word,” said Ted Forsyth of the Police Accountability Board Alliance. “We have to hear all the voices and put them in a position where they have a stake in the process with real power.”
For months, the Police Accountability Board Alliance has been meeting with Rochester City Council and other organizations to come up with a civilian review proposal. In December, Mayor Warren introduced her own legislation.
As a candidate in 2013, Warren campaigned in the national shadow of the death of Treyvon Martin – an unarmed African-American teen shot by a Hispanic man. Some citizen groups who tried to work with her on civilian review say they are disappointed in the details of her proposal to create a civilian review board.
Warren’s legislation calls for citizens to investigate and recommend discipline for officers accused of wrongdoing. Yet the board has no recourse if the police chief rejects their input.
“We expected more. A more powerful board that would have teeth to administer the discipline piece we’re looking for,” said Pastor Wanda Wilson of the Police Accountability Board Alliance.
The Rochester City Charter, which dates back to 1834, gives sole disciplinary powers to the police chief under the oversight of the mayor. In a statement Mayor Warren said her proposal is the only one that will stand up to a legal challenge.
The Police Accountability Board Alliance is asking her to pull the legislation. However, Council President Scott said it will likely be held up in committee while the council drafts its own bill with more enforcement powers.
“By pushing the envelope we recognize it will likely call for a charter change to change who has the authority to discipline,” Scott said. “But we think if we don’t move forward now, it won’t happen.”
The charter was issued by New York State. Some changes require a referendum before voters. Others are handled by petition, followed by a vote from state lawmakers.
“What we’re trying to build is a process that will withstand not just the current mayor, but a process that will change the system beyond us,” Forsyth said.
The Public Safety Committee is scheduled to take up the legislation Thursday. The competing council legislation may not be ready by that time so the matter will be put on hold.
Mayor Warren’s complete statement:
The City Administration’s proposal will create a Police Accountability Board that is legally permissible under the laws of the State of New York. Other proposals that have been suggested would not withstand legal challenge. As proposed by the Administration, the Police Accountability Board would have unprecedented authority – including subpoena power to compel testimony and the production of evidence – to investigate complaints as well as work toward better policies related to the use of force. I am looking forward to working with City Council and community stakeholders to develop a legally permissible Police Accountability Board that will improve public safety by improving the public’s trust and creating a fully transparent investigative process that’s fair to both the community and the officers.