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After hours of debate, City Council to vote on police reform plan for Rochester

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City Council is expected to vote Monday on the city’s state-mandated police reform plan, a document created through an arduous process that left some of the people and groups involved unsatisfied with the finished product.

The plan presents a slew of recommendations, some with deadlines, addressing city and Rochester Police Department policies for responding to mental health crisis calls, funding for programs that provide non-police first responders for certain types of calls, and police use of force.

Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration submitted the draft plan to City Council on Feb. 4, but the unclear language of the plan led to confusion among Council members about just what exactly it proposed. They sought to flesh out the document, which led to a marathon meeting on March 22, which Council continued the next day. Debate swirled around issues including the use of less-than-lethal weapons, mental health services, violence prevention programs, and timelines for specific policy changes.

“This has been quite an unusual process,” City Council President Loretta Scott said during an interview. “I have never sat through a Council meeting that went five hours on one day. That was new for me, and we were just trying to digest and refine so much information...it felt like we were trying to take a sip out of a firehose.”

Last June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring every municipality in the state with a police department to, by April 1, submit a plan to “reimagine” local policing. Any local government required to submit the plan that doesn’t do so risks the loss of state funding.

The city charged four organizations — the Police Accountability Board, the Rochester Police Department, United Christian Leadership Ministries, and the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity — with making recommendations which the administration could consider as it drafted the plan.



City Council was tasked with approving the plan following two public forums in March. The members had scheduled a vote for Thursday, March 25, but canceled the meeting so they could have a few extra days to amend and finalize the plan.

For example, the plan originally included two recommendations around changing how the city responds to mental health-related emergency calls: “provide funding when necessary” to the fledgling Crisis Intervention Services Unit, and work with advocates and the courts on lowering eviction rates. The city has been under public pressure to develop programs that provide an alternative to police for mental health calls.

Council amended that portion of the plan to add six additional components, which set a deadline to increase funding to crisis response teams for the end of 2021, specified that 911 calls should be diverted to the Crisis Intervention Services Unit when appropriate, and called for regular evaluations of the programs to find out what is and is not working.

Previously, the Police Accountability Board had recommended a $10 million budget for the city’s new Person in Crisis Team and its fellow agencies in the Crisis Intervention Services Unit. The revised plan released by City Council called for funding to be increased to those programs, but it does not specify how much additional funding should be provided.

The vague language “littered” throughout the document created a heavy lift for Council in finalizing a plan with at least some direction, said Council member Mitch Gruber.

“This was a really important opportunity to nail the process,” Gruber said, in an interview. “What happened was a lot of last minute wordsmithing. That stuff does not give the thoughtfulness that we need to make significant steps to reimagining public safety.”

Gruber had outlined his frustration in a letter to Council, which also outlined his proposed amendments to the plan.

“Despite the announcement of (Executive Order) 203 in June, it seems there was not a process in place to create this plan until November,” the letter reads. “The result is a draft that feels rushed and contains vague recommendations couched in vague language. Verbs like ‘maintain,’ ‘aim to,’ ‘consider,’ ‘phase out,’ ‘leverage existing,’ ‘continue furthering,’ and ‘assess whether,’ make it hard to ascertain what is actually being recommended.”

The vagueness of the plan led to several arguments among Council members about could or should be in it. At times, it seemed as if Council members were hammering out the document on their own.

For example, the issue of less-than-lethal weapons, like tear gas and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), spawned much debate at Council.

Councilmember Mary Lupien and the Police Accountability Board had recommended an outright ban on chemical irritants and LRADs. And while there was consensus that those tools should not be used on anyone under 15 years old or on peaceful protesters, other members of Council were reluctant to scrap them entirely.

The revised plan ultimately called for the police department to reduce usage and seek alternatives to those tools.

“We have to find something to be able to address issues like this, because the last thing we want to do is take all of these things away without a plan,” said Councilmember Miguel Meléndez.

Perhaps the most notable achievement of the Council negotiations was setting deadlines and timeframes to put changes in place. Most would go into action over the next year or so.

For example, the amended plan called for the city to petition state officials by June 30 to amend a key labor law, the Taylor Law, to allow for the immediate termination of police officers for cause. It also called for the creation of a disciplinary framework around discriminatory policing, such as racial profiling and pretextual stops, which it said should be completed within 60 days of the document’s submission. Additionally, the revised plan called for the city to create and enforce by the end of 2021 laws that prohibit officers from using chokeholds and neck holds, as well as limiting the use of other restraint techniques that can restrict breathing.

Those details provide clarity, but Gruber noted that it will be the 2022 budget which will ultimately show if the city’s police reform plan carries any weight.

Shani Wilson, the Chair of the Police Accountability Board, also expressed disappointment in the draft plan. Specifically, Wilson was concerned that the Rochester Police Department, not the Police Accountability Board, was tasked with creating a framework to put the plan in place.

“The City’s failure to create an implementation framework in the reform plan itself is no reason to undermine our work,” Wilson wrote, in a letter to Council. “Rather than diverting more time and resources into a new police-led reform commission, the City should invest in the community-led reform agency that has already thrown itself into the work of reimagining public safety in Rochester.”

Jose Peo, a vocal supporter of law enforcement who represents the city’s Northwest District, did not participate in drafting the reform document. In a phone interview, Peo said he felt no need to participate because he felt that his suggestions would have been ignored.

“Knowing how our meetings have gone behind the scenes, it doesn’t seem like my input was really going to go anywhere,” Peo said. “It was kind of a waste of my time to even be involved in it.”

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

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