Advocates call for a new police accountability board

ROCHESTER — Members of the Police Accountability Board Alliance have called on the Rochester City Council to establish an independent civilian review process by the end of this year to resolve cases of alleged police misconduct.

During an Aug. 1 press conference on the steps of City Hall, members of the alliance said that city council can go forward with creating a new police accountability board (PAB) based on a legal opinion it had obtained to determine whether it has the authority to do so.

After a request for proposals process this past spring, Harris Beach PLLC was hired to determine whether a PAB could legally be empowered to discipline police officers, explained City Council President Loretta Scott. In a June 21 statement, Scott said Harris Beach had determined that a PAB could indeed be empowered to discipline officers, provided that certain amendments are made to the city’s charter to delegate such authority to a PAB.

The city’s law department then reviewed Harris Beach’s opinion, she added, and found that the law firm’s review had underestimated the weight and impact of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Rochester Police Department’s union, as well as protections for officers under the Taylor Law. The Taylor Law is a labor-relations statute covering most public employees in New York state, according to information at https://on.ny.gov/2AIkXek.

The alliance, however, does not believe a new PAB would violate collective bargaining agreements, said Ted Forsyth, a member of Enough is Enough, an alliance organization that presented a report in February 2017 to make the case for a PAB. He said the alliance based its opinion on its research of 2006 (https://bit.ly/2KwwFZe) and 2017 (https://bit.ly/2M3lKLn) New York State Court of Appeals rulings involving police agencies and municipalities.

Additionally, he said, a PAB should not be controlled by the mayor, as Harris Beach recommended in its opinion, which was issued May 3.

“Mayors past and present have also not insured that RPD officers are held accountable for their misconduct, and independence from the major would give the community the independence it needs to hold officers accountable to give power back to the community,” Forsyth said.

Scott told El Mensajero Católico Aug. 10 that council members are currently developing a PAB model that they think “would be viable despite the two conflicting (legal) opinions.” Once the model is developed, she said that it will be presented to the entire council and Mayor Lovely Warren, and also will undergo a public hearing process.

Scott said she is optimistic that a new review process can be in place this year.

Meanwhile, the alliance has outlined five key pillars that it says should be part of establishing a new PAB. During its Aug. 1 press conference, the alliance said that 50 community organizations support the pillars, and on Aug. 10,

The alliance’s five pillars for a PAB are:

• It will operate as a separate city agency.

• It will have independent investigative authority.

• It will have subpoena power for evidence and witnesses.

• It will possess disciplinary authority.

• It will evaluate systematic patterns, practices, policies and procedures to recommend changes and prevent misconduct.

Scott said she is supportive of the core tenets, which she called “solid,” but had yet to review the final pillar regarding policies and procedures, which will have to evaluated further as the council develops its PAB model.

The alliance also calls for appropriate funding for a PAB so cases can be resolved within 90 days.

Rochester residents need the influence and power a PAB would afford them to stand up for their own communities, said Gayle Harrison, an alliance executive committee member representing Baber AME Church in Rochester.

According to information from RPD, Enough is Enough and the Rochester Coalition for Police Reform, the current process for handling civilian complaints against one or more officers begins with an interview of the civilian by the RPD’s Professional Standards Section (PSS), which serves as the department’s Internal Affairs division. Findings of the PSS are turned over to the Civilian Review Board (CRB), overseen by the Center for Dispute Settlement, which reviews case information from the PSS findings and recommendations.

Depending on their findings, PSS and CRB may independently of each other exonerate officers or find that the allegations are unprovable. Alternately, PSS and CRB might find that the allegations are sustained, which means misconduct has been established. Based on recommendations from PSS and CRB, the police chief makes the final determination whether to dismiss or sustain a complaint. If a complaint is sustained, the chief may initiate disciplinary action.

After the Aug. 1 press conference, Harrison said city residents have waited too long for an overhaul of the current process, first put in place in the 1990s. She also has faith that city leaders will heed the alliance’s call to create a PAB.

“Some things, they’re trying to work out, but I do believe they want to” improve the process, she said. “I believe (change) will come about soon.”

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