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Is real reform coming for police oversight?


Is Rochester ready, at long last, to make major changes in the way it handles complaints about police conduct?

City officials have a lot of things on their plate, but one of the most important is police oversight. Police officers' actions and investigations into them are big issues for people of color here, as they are around the country. And thanks to dogged efforts by local activists, City Council has started a process that could result in real, effective change.

Rochester has been trying for decades to find the right way to handle complaints about police actions – a way that protects both the community and the police. But the solution has always involved police officers conducting the investigations into complaints.

Throughout those decades, activists have continued to demand that civilians be involved in the investigations. Since 1992, a group of trained residents has served on a Civilian Review Board, which reviews investigations into complaints about police. But police do the investigating. And the police chief has the final say, about whether the complaint is justified and what discipline results, if any. Very little of that becomes public.

Now, thanks to continued efforts by reform activists – plus an extensive report on Rochester's oversight system and, unfortunately, a high-profile case involving police officers who injured a teenager named Rickey Bryant – City Hall is taking up the issue again. And there seems to be a good chance that this time, Rochester will do more than tweak things.

Earlier this year, City Council commissioned the Center for Governmental Research to review Rochester's police oversight system and to look at how other cities are handling complaints. Council released the report late last month, and among its findings is that many other cities have found ways to create a real civilian oversight process. Rochester is stuck in the past.

Leading the current activist effort is the Rochester Coalition for Police Reform, which has sent city officials a new proposal for civilian oversight, one that calls for major changes.

The proposal, sent to City Council last month, is similar to one that the Coalition released last spring. Like the previous one, the proposal calls for an independent Police Accountability Board that would be an autonomous office of city government, reporting to City Council. It would conduct investigations into complaints and determine whether they are valid; impose discipline when complaints are sustained; and review and assess the police department's "policies, procedures, patterns, practices, and training" and recommend changes to City Council and the police department.

The Coalition's earlier proposal called for board members to be elected by the public. Under the new proposal, the mayor would appoint one member, City Council would appoint four – one from each quadrant of the city – and a broad alliance of community and faith groups would nominate six more for Council's approval.

Members of the board would be city residents, and the board's composition would have to reflect the diversity of the city, something that the current Civilian Review Board does not do.

City Council is now working on its own proposal. And early next year, it will hold public meetings to get input. The goal: approval of a new policy in April.

Whatever form Council's proposal takes, it absolutely must provide independent, civilian investigation of complaints, and far more transparency than the current system provides. Police officers may object, as they have before. That's not surprising. Their jobs are not just hard; they can be dangerous. Investigations must be fair, and they must be done by people who understand police procedure.

But major, effective reform is in the interest of both the police department and the public. That's the only way to secure the public's trust.

Reform is long overdue in Rochester. And 2018, the year in which the city observes the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass, is a perfect time to move forward.