A coalition to change the way policing is done in Rochester will present a package of suggested reforms to City Council in the near future, says the Rev. Lewis Stewart, president of the United Christian Leadership Ministry.
Coalition members want an independent civilian review board with subpoena power, Stewart says, and they want police officers to wear body cameras. They also want the demographic details of people who are ticketed by police -- race, gender, age -- documented, so the public can see whether officers are profiling, he says.
The Coalition for Police Reform includes Stewart's church as well as other churches in the community, and members of the social justice groups Take Back the Land and Enough is Enough, Stewart says. Coalition members are also working with City Council member Adam McFadden, who is chair of council's Public Safety Committee.
The coalition formed prior to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9 (related column: the Ferguson warning). Outrage over the shooting lead to days of rioting, and questions have been raised about police profiling, aggression, and the militarization of law enforcement.
Images coming out of Ferguson show law enforcement wearing military type gear and using military vehicles. A particularly striking image depicts a uniformed man pointing a machine gun into a crowd of protesters. The gun is mounted on top of an armored vehicle.
"Ferguson, Missouri, is a small town of about 20,000 people," says a statement from Congress member Louise Slaughter. "Why would police officers, who want to protect and serve that community, feel the need to confront demonstrators in full riot gear and in military vehicles with mounted guns? It seems we are over-militarizing the police to the detriment of the First Amendment."
Stewart says that the militaristic presentation instills fear and intimidation, while also serving as a potent symbol of the racial and class divides in American culture. It also lessens any chance of productive dialogue -- widening instead of narrowing the gulf between the involved parties, he says.
"It makes you feel that you are not a citizen of the United States, but a citizen of a third world country," Stewart says. "When you don't know who the other people are, when there's a divide that's already there, you see black people and poor people and Hispanic people as the 'other.' When you see them as the other, you're going to treat them like the enemy."
Locally, the Rochester Police Department didn't respond to questions about its equipment and tactics in time for this story. Council member McFadden says that the RPD does have a mine-resistant truck and that Police Chief Michael Ciminelli decides when and how the truck is used. (UPDATE, Wednesday, Aug. 20: The City of Rochester has now provided the information. It appears at the bottom of the story.)
The Monroe County Sheriff's Office has an armored personnel carrier for its SWAT team, says spokesperson John Helfer, and it has some military-style weapons.
SWAT may be deployed for situations involving an active shooter, hostages, or a distraught person, Helfer says. The team is also deployed at the request of other police departments, he says.
SWAT would "not necessarily" be used for crowd control, he says.
But it's not just the larger departments that have military-style equipment. The Irondequoit Police Department, for example, has two Humvees acquired free of cost from the Department of Defense, says Supervisor Adam Bello. One vehicle is armored, he says, and the other is not.
Irondequoit Police Chief Richard Tantalo says that while there are no hard and fast rules governing use of the vehicles, the armored Humvee may be helpful in evacuating people from dangerous situations and in other unforeseen events.
The decision to use the vehicles would be made by upper-level people in the police department, Tantalo says.
The smaller, unarmored Humvee may be used to transport officers to and from training exercises, he says.
"When you don't know who the other people are, when there's a divide that's already there, you see black people and poor people and Hispanic people as the 'other.' When you see them as the other, you're going to treat them like the enemy." The Rev. Lewis Stewart.
This is a list of items that the Rochester Police Department has obtained from the military surplus program. RPD has no military surplus weapons and one military surplus vehicle. This is an armored, but unarmed, vehicle. Listed below are the functions for which the RPD would use this vehicle:• Evacuate civilians, fire fighters, and police from active shooter events. RPD has reconfigured the interior of the vehicle to allow transport of injured persons on a gurney;
• Transport police personnel to and from situations containing armed barricaded suspects;
• Use as a fixed point of cover, allowing for police to safely remain on the scene of an armed suspect to negotiate and resolve with minimal risk to all involved;
• Address incidents containing hazardous, potentially dangerous devices like IED’s potentially containing explosives. The armor protection will allow officers to drive very close to potential explosive devices to determine the best way to mitigate any threat, while minimizing threat to all involved: fire, police, and civilians;
• Chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive response to weapons of mass destruction incidents. The RPD vehicle is equipped to transport personnel into CRBNE environments to conduct WMD response, or interdiction operations;
• Natural emergencies. The vehicle’s size, weight, and four-wheel-drive make it suitable to assist in floods, dangerously high winds, and snow emergencies. It can also be used to move vehicles and/or debris blocking critical roadways.