City Council is reviewing Rochester's system of handling citizen complaints about police actions, and is considering establishing a new Police Accountability Board to review the complaints and possibly handle discipline. Rochester's current Civilian Review Board is involved in the reviews, but it has limited power and can't be involved in discipline. A committee of police is heavily involved in the review of complaints, and the police chief makes the final decisions, both about whether a complaint is justified and what discipline is imposed, if any. And those decisions are not made public.
Police have insisted that both state law and their collective bargaining agreement protect the privacy of their personnel records and require that the police chief makes decisions about discipline. But police-reform activists say that's a misreading of state law.
Earlier this year, Council asked Harris Beach law firm to provide an opinion on whether a Police Advisory Board could legally have the power to discipline officers. And Thursday afternoon, President Loretta Scott released the Harris Beach opinion and the response from the city's own law department.
Harris Beach said that an advisory board could indeed have that power: "We have concluded that the proposed PAB may be legally empowered to discipline police officers, provided that certain amendments are made to the Charter of the City of Rochester that delegate such authority to the PAB," it said. You can read that full decision below.
But the city's Law Department pushed back. In a letter from Corporation Counsel Timothy Curtin, the department said City Council shouldn't rely on the Harris Beach opinion because it misreads a proposed ordinance to establish the board, it doesn't adequately consider the weight of the collective bargaining agreement between the City and the police union, and it doesn't consider the state's civil service law. You can read that letter below as well.
Scott said Council will consider those opinions "and use them to inform the development of a new Police Advisory Board."
In a statement Friday afternoon, the executive committee for the Police Accountability Board Alliance - which has been pushing for major reform of Rochester's police oversight system - said it agrees with the Harris Beach opinion.
"Although Corporation Counsel claims that the Taylor Law and the Rochester Police Locust Club collective bargaining agreement prevent changes to the police disciplinary process," the PABA statement says, "Corporation Counsel fails to address the New York State Court of Appeals cases from 2008 to 2017 which have allowed other New York municipalities to change police disciplinary processes despite conflicting bargaining agreements."
"While the various legal details, a possible referendum, and changes to the City Charter are important," the statement says, "it is also important to stay focused on the fact City Council has the legal authority to establish a Police Accountability Board with disciplinary power."
The executive committee plans to release more detailed response at an upcoming press conference, according to its statement.