News & Opinion » Featured story

The big divide

Police and the inner city


In 2001 and 2002, the dramatic deaths of five African-Americans during or following a police action made Rochester headlines. In one incident, an officer shot and killed a 14-year-old boy who was fleeing a police chase. In another, an officer tripped during a drug raid and fatally shot a man.

Hargrave says he knows that some people --- "including," he says, "some friends of mine" --- will be angry. "If you're a member of the [African-American] community," he said in an interview last week, "you know that we have problems in police-community relations."

But "the problem is more complex than we would like to imagine," he said. "Yes, there is an element of race and racism there. But there are also challenges in terms of basic relationship issues. If you don't know people and cannot experience people on a personal and human level, you will not have good relations with them. And that is a problem on both sides."

"I'm a black man," said Hargrave, "and I'm a big black man, and for some people I'm an intimidating presence. Not only as a community, but also as a country, we have to do better about race."

Hargrave and Miller's report is a lengthy, expansive document. And the tone --- starting with its title, "Pathways to Better Police-Community Relations in Rochester" --- is evenhanded and relatively mild. There is no declaration of crisis, no call for radical solutions.

Hargrave and Miller go out of their way not to place blame. There is frequent praise for efforts the city and the police department have made. The context is often one of "we have made progress, but there's work to be done."

In the report, Hargrave and Miller insist repeatedly that the solution to troubled police-community relations does not lie solely within the Rochester Police Department. No one segment of the community, on its own, can improve those relations, says the report.

And Hargrave and Miller unveil a raft of recommendations, dozens and dozens of them, dealing with the police department, drug treatment, media coverage, the Rochester school district, the Bar Association, neighborhood groups, the clergy.

There may, in fact, be criticism that the report and its recommendations are too broad, that because Hargrave and Miller call for a wide variety of actions by the entire community, there'll be no action by anybody. But Miller and Hargrave insist that police-community relations is a two-way street.

Too often, Miller said last week, there is a rush to judgment. Neighborhood activists sometimes assume that police are always at fault in a confrontation, and police assume that they are never at fault.

"We have to change the culture in the police department," said Miller, "and we've got to change the culture on the streets as well."

"The truth is," said Hargrave, "police have the ability and the authority to use deadly force. We have to do a better job training police officers. But we have to train members of the public in what police can do and where they need to draw their own line.

Confidential interviews by Hargrave and Miller with more than 100 people --- including 30 police officers and administrators and 28 neighborhood leaders --- form the backbone of the report. They also reviewed local police department records, information on practices in 15 other cities, and other material. The Center for Governmental Research provided staff support, and RIT's criminal-justice department conducted a telephone survey of Rochester residents.

The result is a broad analysis of a complicated, emotional issue. But the common thread is that the civilian deaths and the controversy surrounding them are the symptoms of a more fundamental problem: a deep, serious, community divide, rooted in a lack of understanding and trust.

Police in some neighborhoods are viewed as "an occupying force who don't distinguish citizens from legitimate suspects," says the report. Neighborhood leaders and clergy told of police stopping and questioning residents with "an unnecessary sneering, disrespectful verbal comment, with no apology at the end or no appreciation for the person's cooperation."

"People said, 'We're as much against crime as anybody,'" Miller said last week, "'but we don't want to be looked at as suspects.'"

The lack of understanding cuts both ways: Few people understand the stress under which police often work. Officers, said Miller, repeatedly told the two: "You don't know the abuse we take." And the report's recommendations include the need for residents, clergy, and community leaders to thank police for what they do right, and to support them.

Despite the breadth and general low-key approach, the Hargrave-Miller report portrays a community badly in need of reform.

Hargrave and Miller call for more interaction between police and the community: more chances for officers to get together with residents, formally and informally. They want officers to serve on community boards, to work with inner-city youths through athletic leagues.

They want clergy and community leaders to do more --- to "be more forceful in speaking out against injustice and the growing loss of life" --- and to challenge the minority community to do more to reduce violence.

They want the Rochester school district to play a larger role: to work with the police department in such areas as truancy, violence prevention, school suspensions, and dropouts. They want schools to help teach students about their rights and responsibilities and the rights of police officers. Despite their common interests and needs, says the report, police and school-district officials rarely discuss how they can work together.

They cite the concern of residents and police that local media often focus on sensationalism, "too often irresponsibly reporting in ways that raised tensions and anxieties that didn't exist by blowing stories out of proportion."

A possible weakness of the report is that Hargrave and Miller don't prioritize the extensive problems they cite or the recommendations they make. That is consistent with their insistence that there's no single solution to the police-community divide, but it may blur the focus of their work.

Asked last week to name the most important, immediate actions on which the community should focus, both Hargrave and Miller named police recruitment and training. Following are highlights from the report, on police quality and other topics. The entire study, with all of its recommendations, is available on the City of Rochester website,

Police 'quality'

Some of Hargrave and Miller's strongest and most specific criticisms focus on how the RPD recruits, trains, and assigns its police officers. Their assessment:

• The police department spends far too little money and effort recruiting new officers.

This is particularly significant, because the department is failing to recruit enough African Americans and Hispanics. For nearly 30 years, the city has been under a federal order because of the racial imbalance of its police force. While it currently exceeds the required 25 percent, for the past two years the percentage of new minority recruits has been much smaller.

An adequate number of African-American and Hispanic officers is crucial for inner-city patrols, where there is long-standing distrust of police officers. In addition, minority officers can serve as role-models for inner-city youth and can help overcome distrust among white officers.

The minority community's distrust of police also makes it hard for the police department to attract new minority officers. A strong recruitment effort, then, is essential. But the department has only one fulltime recruitment person, and the annual budget for recruitment is only $7000. And rather than recruiting from throughout the country, the department limits its search to localities within about four hours' drive from Rochester, unable to spend enough money to interview candidates who live farther away.

• The screening and hiring process for new recruits is dismayingly long.

The Civil Service exam is offered only once a year, and tests and background checks are processed slowly. It may be almost a year before applicants learn whether they passed the exam, and it's several more months before they can start training. Many people, says Miller, aren't willing to put a career on hold for that long.

• Hiring requirements are eliminating potentially good prospects.

Only 10 percent of the present force and new recruits are women, probably because of the toughness of the "agility" and fitness tests.

In addition, the maximum age for new recruits is 35. That keeps the department from recruiting older people who may be more mature.

The police training system, says the report, also has serious flaws.

• While the report praises the initial training at the PoliceAcademy, that training focuses on "weapons, tactics, and general procedures." But "field" training isn't adequate. There's too little training involving real-life situations: too little role playing, too little training in how to deal with people under the influence of drugs or who are mentally ill, too little training on how to defuse confrontations with angry or emotional people, so that officers don't have to resort to force.

There's not enough training in what some officers may consider "soft" skills: "way too little on community relations, good listening, and being sensitive to others, especially from different cultures and backgrounds."

In addition, the initial field training is often done by young officers with relatively little experience themselves. And the department seems to have no requirement for continuing in-service training.

• The department provides little management training for officers who are promoted to sergeant, captain, and lieutenant. "When officers make sergeant," says the report, "they receive one-time four-week training in basic supervision," and that's it. And even that short training focuses more on paperwork and discipline rather than on management and leadership issues.

• There's not enough interaction with community leaders and residents "so that recruits are exposed to different cultures and experiences," says the report. "Such exposure can help recruits see community residents as 'people rather than only as suspects, and as potential allies rather than enemies.'"

The police union

For years, there has been tension between police-department management and the Police Locust Club, the Rochester police-officers union. Hargrave and Miller say the resulting conflicts are "pervasive, deep, and affect virtually all aspects of the work done within the department and all levels of employees throughout the organization." Some officers told Hargrave and Miller that the union fosters distrust of management and is sometimes deliberately obstructionist.

Hargrave and Miller characterize the situation as "a constant struggle for the hearts and minds of Rochester's police officers." The tension affects morale, staffing assignments, discipline, and the department's attempts to reform policies and procedures. And it also affects police-community relations.

Part of the problem, Hargrave and Miller say, is that all but the top level of the RPD is in the union: officers, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. As a result, supervisors are often reluctant to challenge or discipline officers, who are fellow union members. Evaluations are considered "a joke."

The department's seniority system, dictated by the union contract, also creates problems, the report says. Among them: New recruits, "as the least experienced and least prepared, are among the most likely ones to be placed in the most difficult and volatile situations in the most difficult shifts."

Also a problem: State law requires binding arbitration when union-management negotiations have reached an impasse. The hostility between the union and top RPD officials often prevents compromise, and important decisions involving policy and procedure are made by the arbitrator. And the arbitrator, says the report, often tries to "balance wins for management and wins for the union."

"In effect," says the report, "there is a three-legged stool of power": the chief, the union, and the arbitrator, with the public having little input or influence.

Police oversight

For years, some activists have pushed for more civilian review of police. Prior to 1977, all complaints about police misconduct were handled solely by the police department itself. Following a series of fatal police shootings of civilians, a study headed by the late Charles Crimi recommended involvement of civilians in the review of misconduct charges. That led to the current structure, in which a civilian board reviews the records of police investigation into selected misconduct cases. The board does not conduct independent reviews.

Hargrave and Miller don't call for increased civilian involvement; the current system works well in general, they said, and they found no evidence that under it, police misconduct is being ignored or police are being unfairly disciplined.

Hargrave and Miller do suggest improvements. Citizens should be better informed about what they can do when they have a complaint, says the report. The process should be speeded up; currently, it can be more than a year before a complaint is referred to the Civilian Review Board.

In addition, says the report, the public should have better access to the results of investigation. And when possible, "conciliation" --- getting the two parties together with a mediator to talk through the complaint --- should be used to solve a problem.

Hargrave and Miller don't recommend giving the Civilian Review Board subpoena power. They concluded that cities in which such boards have subpoena power, there have been mixed results. And, Hargrave said last week, "we don't feel that would be productive --- or possible."


One of the most far-reaching (and possibly controversial) sections of the Hargrave-Miller report is found about two-thirds of the way into the document: an assessment of the community's efforts to reduce the sale of illegal drugs.

Despite the enormous expense, Miller and Hargrave say, the anti-drug efforts have not been successful. Miller says he was struck during his interviews by "the frustration the police feel." Repeatedly, officers told him: "We're not winning this."

And yet, the report notes, "Sale of drugs creates one of the most visible forms of conflict on an ongoing basis between city police and citizens."

Clearly, says the report, police can not solve the community's drug problem by themselves:

"Drugs are primarily a public health issue, driven in poor neighborhoods by simple economics.... Sale of drugs represents the major source of income for some families in various neighborhoods, and the effects of drugs have had devastating implications for many areas of the city.... Sale of drugs has created a virtual 'war zone' of competitors and open sales in some areas, leaving some residents afraid to leave their homes, and some dead. The abuse of drugs has crippled families in various areas. And some neighborhoods have been virtually stripped of adult males because of incarceration for drug-related crimes."

Although Drug Court has proved to be an effective way to steer drug abusers into treatment rather than imprisonment, the use of the court has been declining. "Several judges in both courts have histories of rarely making referrals to the courts," says the report, and Hargrave and Miller recommend that such judges be held publicly accountable.

Nor are there enough treatment programs available, and Hargrave and Miller urge that some of the money now spent on imprisoning people convicted of minor-drug charges be used to create more treatment options.

What next?

Will anything changebecause of the report? Tension between police and inner-city residents is not new in Rochester. The controversial 2001-2002 deaths of African Americans were not the city's first. Like the Crimi report of the 1970s, the Hargrave-Miller report spells out reforms that could make a difference in Rochester. But the new report doesn't set out a plan for following up or for holding any part of the community accountable.

In interviews last week, Hargrave and Miller said they hope their recommendations will become an issue in next year's mayoral campaign. And both said they hope the report will lead to real change in the community.

"If we can just keep a dialogue going..." said Miller. "If Hargrave-Miller does nothing more than start communication," he said, it will have been worth the effort put into the report.

Dialogue may not be enough, though. And even dialogue may be hard, given the intensity of emotions among some African-American leaders and police. Maybe heightened dialogue between those groups is the first place to start.

RIT's John Klofas, who studies police departments throughout the country and has been involved in numerous studies of police and criminal justice in Rochester, says he likes the report and its breadth. But, he adds: "It depends on somebody moving forward with it. Someone needs to sort through it, say 'We're going to start with this and this and this,' and develop a structure to implement it."

"It's a great first report of a series," he suggests. "The second should be prioritization, and the third implementation."

"It would be a shame for something more not to come out of this," says Klofas, "but it's not structured for something more to come out of it. It's the first step in what ought to be a process."