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Rochester police recruits to face grilling by civilians


New police recruits in Rochester will be grilled by a panel of citizens who can recommend to the police chief whether they be hired, under a new initiative announced Thursday by Mayor Lovely Warren.

The Civilian Public Safety Interview Panel will be made up of 9 to 12 volunteers and is thought to be the first of its kind in New York.

Panelists will be tasked with questioning the recruits about topics such as “attitudes on contemporary policing,” life experiences, familiarity with Rochester, and implicit bias. Interviews would not take place until after a recruit completes physical training and background checks.

The initiative was the brainchild of the Rev. Lewis Stewart of United Christian Leadership Ministries, a vocal and leading critic of policing in Rochester. Stewart would help select panelists along with representatives from the Police Department and the city’s Department of Human Resources.

Panelists would be required to undergo training from both the Police Department’s citizens police academy and the United Christian Leadership Ministries.

“As we move forward, we must create a department that truly protects and serves our community, because it has been made and expected to do so,” Warren said. “Every officer needs to be connected to the residents that they serve.”

In order to serve on the panel, an applicant must be at least 21 years of age, pass a criminal background check, and be “involved in their neighborhood,” according to a memo outlining the initiative. Stewart sees the new panel as an opportunity to make lasting cultural change in policing.

“First of all, it allows people to engage in transparent, community policing,” Stewart said. “Second, the community will have a true voice in who does and who does not become a police officer.”

Ultimately, the panel will not be responsible for making hiring decisions. While it is tasked with making recommendations on new hires that will be submitted to the chief, the final say rests with the chief, who is not beholden to the panel.

Stewart added he hoped interim Chief Dave Smith and future chiefs would take the panel’s recommendations into consideration.

“Of course the chief will have a final decision in the process, but we hope and believe that the chief will listen intently to the credible voice of the panel,” Stewart said.

Last year, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted Executive Order 203, which required every municipality in the state to create a police reform plan by April 2021, or risk losing state funding.

In Rochester, four organizations — the Police Accountability Board, UCLM, the Rochester Police Department, and the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity — were asked for recommendations on what to include in the city’s plan.

The panel was part of UCLM’s contribution to the document.

Warren touted many of the shifts in public safety made in the past year, including the creation of the Persons in Crisis team. She also said it’s not enough to solve the city’s ills.

“We have to do more,” Warren said. “...We need to recognize the role of historic racism and structural inequality in crime.”

A message left with the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union representing rank-and-file officers, was not immediately returned.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].