News & Opinion » News

Barnhart and Lupien call on DOJ to investigate police protest response


Two local lawmakers have asked the US Department of Justice to begin a civil rights investigation into local law enforcement’s response to recent protests in the city of Rochester.

City Council member Mary Lupien and Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart sent a letter to Eric Dreiband, Assistant Attorney General for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, asks the DOJ to investigate what sort of weapons were used by police during the protests, whether they were used appropriately, and if protesters’ civil rights were violated.

“There have been tanks, dogs, PepperBalls, pepper spray, tear gas, and just a really disproportionate response to people that are peacefully protesting,” Lupien said. “These are chemical weapons being used against our people. Our people are not the enemy, and we are not at war.”

Protestors have gathered daily since September 2, when the late-March death of Daniel Prude became public. Prude was naked, unarmed, and in crisis when Rochester police officers encountered him. They eventually restrained Prude until he lost consciousness. EMT’s transported him to Strong Memorial Hospital, where he died a week later.

Police have, at times, heavily used Pepper Balls and tear gas against protesters. When they participated in the Saturday, September 5 protests, both Barnhart and Lupien were hit by Pepper Balls. Nicole Hushla-Re, executive vice chair for the Monroe County Democratic Committee, had her nose broken by a tear gas canister, according to the letter.

PepperBall guns, a sort of paintball gun which fires projectiles filled with capsaicin powder, have come under particular scrutiny. According to the Rochester Police Department’s standard operating procedure, the weapons are not to be used to prevent people from congregating in a specific area, nor are they to be fired at people’s faces, throats, or the base of the neck and spine, except in extreme scenarios, such as large fights.

Barnhart, who was shot in the head on Saturday, Sept. 5, said she questions if these protocols are being followed, and was aggravated by not knowing who the commanding officers were.

“We were standing with pastors, we were standing with senior citizens, we were standing with elders, and the police looked at us and opened fire at us,” Barnhart said. “I don’t understand how that happens, and if it has happened to us, you better believe it has happened to lots and lots of other people.”

In July, RPD loosened its restrictions on PepperBall use. Once relegated exclusively to the tactical unit, launchers are now permitted for use by all officers, so long as they receive approval from their commanding officers.

Barnhart said Senators Kristen Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer, as well as Congressman Joseph Morelle, have also been sent copies of the letter to the DOJ.

She said she’s optimistic elected officials at the federal level will push the DOJ to act in a timely manner.

“We don’t condone any violence, we don’t condone protesters throwing things at police,” Barnhart said. “But we also have to demand that police react proportionately, and also don’t engage in violence. That is completely unnecessary, and we’ve definitely seen unnecessary violence over the past two weeks.”

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