Concerns over police conduct aren’t new, in Rochester or many other cities. Nor is the public push for reform.
But in Rochester this year, support for reform has been gaining strength. On the heels of 18-year-old Ricky Bryant’s lawsuit charging police with using excessive force and a citizens-group report calling for an independent review board, City Council is preparing to subpoena records related to the Bryant case.
And Council President Loretta Scott says she wants Council to go further: she supports an independent, citizen review of police conduct, she said on Friday.
This isn’t the first time city officials have tried to increase civilian oversight of police. Previous protests and task force reports resulted in the current system, in which a citizen panel reviews police misconduct investigations.
But while that has brought outsiders into the review process, the investigations themselves are done by police, and the police chief makes decisions about discipline.
Council has long had the authority to subpoena records related to investigations, but apparently it hasn’t ever used it. And regardless of what that information shows, Council won’t be able to share most of it. State law protects police officers’ confidentiality.
Former Mayor Bill Johnson says he thinks it’s time to push for changes in all parts of police oversight: the union contract, the Civilian Review Board, and state law.
Johnson hasn’t always felt this way. In the past, he has told activists pushing for an independent review board that they already had one, in the form of elected City Council members, who get reports from the Civilian Review Board and who have subpoena power.
That’s no longer enough, Johnson said on Friday. Since City Council can’t disclose most of what it learns from subpoenaed records, the nine Council members would know what the information showed, Johnson said, “and 200,000 people wouldn’t.”
“We are in a whole different era,” he said, with citizens documenting police actions on video cameras and smartphone and sharing those images on social media.
Both sides – the police union and community activists – have to change, Johnson said. “I would say to the police union: You’ve gotta change your rhetoric, your stance, from ‘We will not allow any investigation of the police.’ That’s just not politically feasible any longer.”
Activists have to acknowledge that “99 percent of the interactions between police and civilians do not involve misconduct,” Johnson said. “We’re dealing with a small fraction of people.”
And the public should push for a change in state law dealing with the confidentiality of officers’ personnel records.
Getting that law changed won’t be easy, Johnson said: “The police union is as formidable as the teacher’s union.” But, he said, “Just because taking them on is difficult doesn’t mean you should avoid it.”
“This is different than talking about wages,” Johnson said. “We’re talking about upholding the law and respect for the law. If you want civilians to respect the law, you have to uphold the law.” And the public has to trust that people are being held accountable, Johnson said.
And Council President Scott stresses the importance of police credibility, of the community having confidence in police. The perception of misconduct is greater than the reality, she said, but the lack of transparency has destroyed trust in the police in some parts of the community.
And the destruction of that trust affects public safety, she said.
Johnson agrees. “We’ve got to understand that erosion of respect for police is as great a threat to public safety as violence,” he said.