Discussion considers how to improve race relations

ROCHESTER — A panel on race relations raised some concerns about the need to improve relationships among community members and law enforcement.

The Unite Rochester Community Response Panel held a forum July 25 to consider how the Rochester community is responding to racial tensions locally. The forum was moderated by Julie Philipp, senior engagement editor for the Democrat and Chronicle.

Panelists included Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli; the Rev. Marvin A. McMickle, president of Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School; Sherry Walker-Cowart, president and chief executive officer for the Center for Dispute Settlement; Cynthia Herriott Sullivan, Unite Rochester Justice Committee/Seamless Communications Group chief executive officer; and David Sánchez, M.K. Gandhi Institute Youth Program organizer.

McMickle kicked off the panel discussion by saying he did not believe that residents of Rochester or anywhere in the United States are living in the worst of times for African-Americans. He said the nadir of African-American history in the United States was from 1895 to 1935 when black lives had no value after slavery was abolished. During that period, the bodies of African-Americans often hung from trees in cities throughout the country, and Ku Klux Clan members rode without restriction, he added.

"These times may be challenging," he said of recent fatal incidents that have led to the Black Lives Matter movement. "But they are by no stretch of the imagination a crisis that this city, state or nation cannot solve. … In many ways, they are about to be the best of times. I refuse to be anything but an optimist."

Other panelists discussed how a law enforcement approach from a few decades ago — when officers lived in and walked the streets they patrolled — may be an idea worth considering again.

"They knew families and stopped for barbecues," said Walker-Cowart. "People are looking forward to and believe we can get back to those times."

Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli said a residency requirement for police officers would require a change in the state law. He also noted that the police department has used its recruitment process to try and diversify its force as well as offer cultural training. A challenge remains with young officers who don’t have personal connections to the civil rights movement, he said.

"I personally don’t believe officers can’t relate to the community they police because they don’t live there," he added. "We aggressively recruit minority officers … and many come from outside of Rochester."

When people see each other as human beings through proximity, though, there are more opportunities to build bridges, added Walker-Cowart.

"We need to try and bridge relationships and get together to come up with solutions," noted Cynthia Middleton, a South Carolina native who has lived in Rochester for 42 years and attended the panel discussion.

While she supported the good intentions of the panelists and organizers of the discussion, Middleton said the issue of race relations was bigger than all of them.

"We need to develop relationships," she said. "Without relationships, we’re not going to go anywhere."

Inviting police officers as well as judges and probation officers to the conversation also is an important part of addressing racial disparity in terms of the criminal justice system, noted Herriott Sullivan.

"Law enforcement is just the start," she said. "We have to look at the entire process."

A follow-up meeting was scheduled for Aug. 9 to discuss how to leverage the ideas raised by the forum, organizers said.

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