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Council members grill Police Accountability Board over missed goals

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During a combative Rochester City Council budget hearing, the city’s fledgling Police Accountability Board pledged it would begin taking citizen complaints regarding the conduct of city officers.

But the board’s representatives, under fire from Council members, explained repeatedly how the agency had failed to hit key metrics throughout the last fiscal year. For example, the board had projected that it would handle 480 complaints over the past year, but representatives said it had taken none; staff attributed the shortcoming to not having the correct software for taking complaints.

“I guess what I’m trying to understand, and I want to be clear, is what do you guys do over there?” Councilmember Willie Lightfoot asked. “I’m having a hard time understanding what you do all day, because you’re not reviewing any cases.”

In March, City Council approved a $285,000 contract for case management software for the Police Accountability Board, with the expectation that the agency would begin taking complaints in April. The board missed that deadline and is now aiming for a mid-June launch.

During the hearing, the last of several held Monday on Mayor Malik Evans proposed 2022-23 budget, Duwaine Bascoe, the Police Accountability Board’s chief investigator, argued that that the agency has also been hampered by the Rochester Police Department, which he said hasn’t agreed on an information sharing system and has missed several set upon meetings.

Bascoe also argued the board has not had the systems and staffing it has needed to begin doing work. The board has hired 35 of the 54 employees it planned to, although the vast majority were brought on in the past few months.

“Even when we start taking in complaints, unless we can get full cooperation with RPD in regards to any information sharing, our investigations are going to be hindered,” Bascoe said. “We’re going to be moving as best as we can.”

The Police Accountability Board missed other key benchmarks in its first fiscal year. It was supposed to complete 125 investigations, roll out five major policy proposals, and hold 60 community outreach education programs. Councilmember Mitch Gruber said the board has thus far completed no investigations, developed no policy proposals, and have held about 20 community outreach programs.

“There was no software that was going to make us come in at 30 percent of community engagement events, there was no software stoppages preventing us from having policy proposals issued or oversight investigations conducted,” Gruber said. “...In general these are largely underperforming (key policy initiatives).”

City Council established the Police Accountability Board in 2019 following a public referendum where it was approved with 75 percent of the vote. The board was formed to investigate misconduct in the Rochester Police Department, make policy recommendations, and to determine discipline for officers found to have engaged in misconduct. Twice, courts have struck down the board’s disciplinary powers but an appeal is pending.

The hearing came at a time when the nascent city agency had been in disarray. Its executive director, Conor Dwyer Reynolds, was placed on administrative leave earlier this month amid numerous personnel complaints within the board.

Last week, City Council authorized the Police Accountability Board to hire an attorney to conduct an independent investigation into personnel matters at the agency. Council members also placed a hiring freeze on the board and placed its expenditures under the control of Council President Miguel Melendez throughout the investigation.

Melendez, in a closing statement, said the Board needs to get to taking complaints.

“All the other things you want to do, I hear you, but if you’re not taking complaints, you’re not doing the will of the people,” Melendez said. “...As you can hear, we are exhausted around this conversation of complaints, and the public is exhausted around this conversation of complaints.”

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

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