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Rochester City Council approves Police Accountability Board


[ UPDATED ] Rochester has reached a milestone in a decades-long fight over how it should handle police misconduct claims. In a unanimous vote Tuesday night, City Council passed a new law creating an independent, civilian Police Accountability Board.

The board would have broad powers, including the responsibility for investigating civilian complaints about police conduct and deciding discipline when those complaints were sustained. The board would also be involved in reviewing and setting Rochester Police Department policy.

Council's action was met with applause and cheers last night, but the vote is only the first step. Because the law transfers discipline authority to the Accountability Board from the mayor and police chief, it now goes to a public referendum. It will be on the ballot in the November 5 election.

Council President Loretta Scott called the vote "momentous."

A few hours before the vote, the Police Accountability Board Alliance, a coalition of activists, faith-based groups, and social-justice groups, endorsed the law. Over the past few months, the Alliance had expressed concern about some aspects of the law, including the right of former law-enforcement officers to serve on the board. But in the end, the Alliance lent its support.

“The legislation is not a be-all and end-all solution,” the Alliance said in a statement released before the Council meeting, “not exactly what we have been advocating for, and may not work in the same way that we imagined it would. However, the legislation is a good step toward substantive police accountability.”

In a statement she read prior to calling for Council's vote, Council President Scott noted that Council had been working on the legislation for two years. But, she said, the community’s work began more than 50 years ago, with passage of the city’s first Police Advisory Board.

That action, she said, "was the first time a civilian-led body would be given the opportunity to review allegations of police misconduct. Racial tensions in our city were at a boiling point, and citizen groups demanded action. The establishment of the Police Advisory Board aimed to improve police and community relations and provide the people of our city justice, where they felt they had none.”

But that board, as the name stated, had an advisory role only. Investigations have continued to be conducted by the police, and the final outcome has been made by the police chief.

Since then, successive administrations and City Councils have tried to strengthen the process. “The City of Rochester has tried for 50 long years to get it right,” Scott said. “We tried a Police Advisory Board that was embroiled in legal battles and written out of the budget. We tried a Complaint Investigation Committee that lacked independence and teeth. We tried a Civilian Review Board that lacked community confidence.”

“But that changes today,” Scott said, “because today we offer a Police Accountability Board that upholds the '5 Pillars' called for by the community: independence; subpoena power, investigatory power, disciplinary power, and the power to review, evaluate, and recommend systemic changes.”

Voter approval of the legislation in November is not guaranteed. While police-community relations are often tense in some parts of the city, that's not the case in other neighborhoods. The Rochester Locust Club, the RPD officers’ union, has remained opposed to the law and may sue.  Among the union’s concerns: in transferring discipline authority, the law overrides the collective bargaining agreement between the union and the city.

Union President Mike Mazzeo said last night that he’s considering all options. And it wouldn’t be surprising if the  Locust Club, the  mounted an aggressive campaign against the law. before the November election.

Following the meeting last night, Locust Club President Mazzeo criticized Council for approving the legislation soon after the city's new police chief, La'Ron Singletary, took office.

“I think what they did with the chief of police was in fact strip him of any authority and power," Mazzeo said. "I see a leadership that was going in the right direction in the police department, that I believe was going to get out in front of the public and be more transparent and explain things that should have been explained better, and this Council did not give that chief the opportunity to even go forward and attempt to do that.”

“I’m not so sure gloating about something that hasn’t given everybody consideration and has not addressed everyone’s concern is the right way to pass legislation," Mazzeo said.

In its press release yesterday afternoon, the Police Accountability Board Alliance issued a call for volunteers and donations to build support for the legislation. Efforts by the Alliance and other members of the Coalition for Police Reform led to its creation, which the Alliance called “the most progressive civilian oversight legislation in the country.”

“It is absolutely vital that the people of this city go out and vote in favor of the proposed PAB legislation on November 5,” the Alliance said in its press release.

James Brown is a reporter for WXXI News. Efua Agyare-Kumi and Mary Anna Towler contributed reporting to this article.