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Council nearing vote on police oversight reform

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[UPDATED] One of the most important reforms in recent Rochester history – changing the way the city handles complaints about police conduct – is likely to be voted on by City Council in February.

After months of study, Council released its proposal last week for a Police Accountability Board with broad powers. Council held the first of three public forums on its plan on January 23. The remaining forums will be on Monday, January 28, at the Danforth R-Center, 200 West Avenue, and on Thursday, January 31, in the City Hall Atrium, 30 Church Street, downtown, both from 5:30 to 7 p.m.

No advance sign-up will be required.

Currently, investigations into civilian complaints about police conduct are done by the Professional Standards Section of the Rochester Police Department. Civilians filing the complaints are interviewed by police officers, and the police chief decides whether an officer's conduct violates department policies and what discipline, if any, results.

Community activists and social-justice groups have pushed for change for decades, but city officials have felt limited in what they could do. State law protects officers' personnel records, and the city's labor contract with the police union stipulates that the police chief is responsible for discipline.

Both Council and Mayor Lovely Warren have agreed that the current system has to change, and they both want to establish a Police Accountability Board whose members would be civilians, not police officers. Both want the board to have the power to investigate complaints about officers' conduct.

But Warren's proposed legislation, released in late December, keeps discipline in the hands of the police chief.

Under Council's legislation, the Police Accountability Board would develop a "discipline matrix" that would stipulate discipline for specific levels of misconduct, and the Accountability Board would have discipline authority based on that matrix.

The composition of the Accountability Board is also different in the two proposals. Under Warren's legislation, the mayor would choose three members of the board, City Council would choose three, and four would be recommended by the Police Accountability Board Alliance, a group of activists and community organizations that have been pressing for major reform of Rochester's police oversight system.

City Council's board would be composed of four people chosen by Council, one from each Council district; one chosen by the mayor; and four selected from 12 nominated by the Police Accountability Board Alliance.

Council has held Warren's legislation in committee, and it plans to vote on its own legislation at its February 19 meeting. And while Council President Loretta Scott says Council might make changes to its legislation based on public comments at this month's forums, all nine Council members have signed onto the current version, so it doesn't seem likely that there'll be major revisions.

If Council approves its legislation, it's considered likely that the police union will sue the city. And Warren has said repeatedly that her version of a Police Accountability Board is the only one that can withstand a legal challenge.

But in an interview earlier this month, Council President Scott sounded firm. "We'll just have to face that if it happens," she said. "We can't not do this out of fear of being sued."

Leaders of the Police Accountability Board Advisory Committee, whose efforts led to Council's tough stand, called Council's legislation "a stunning victory for the community on the journey toward justice."

"Assuming Rochester City Council passes the legislation that they've introduced," the committee said in a statement thanking Council for its legislation, "Rochester, New York, will shoot to the top of the list as having the most comprehensive police accountability system in the nation."