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NYCLU unveils data on RPD policies, actions

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When are Rochester police authorized to use force? Are they using it disproportionately against people of color?

What kinds of surveillance technology are Rochester police using – and what's the department’s policy for using it?

How does the police chief decide what kind of discipline to impose on officers he believes are guilty of misconduct?

The public has a right to know all of that, says a new report from the New York Civil Liberties Union, but too often police department policies aren't clear, aren't developed with community input, and aren't accessible to the public. And Rochester is no exception.

Last week the NYCLU unveiled an online database that contains extensive information about police department policies in seven communities, including Rochester. And while the NYCLU's research focuses primarily on policies, not how the policies are carried out, the data on Rochester bolsters many of the arguments made by local police-reform advocates, including concerns about disproportionate arrests of people of color.

The project, called Behind the Badge, is the result of several years of gathering data from the police departments. The NYCLU will be adding information about other departments as it continues its research. (The database is available at behindthebadgeny.org.)



Along with statistics and policies provided by the police departments themselves, the NYCLU provides comments and recommendations for improvements. (It says Rochester was "generally responsive" to its pubic information requests, and it compliments the RPD for several of its policies.)

The purpose of the database, says the NYCLU's introduction, is to provide data that residents, police, and public officials can assess. "Accountability and transparency are a crucial step in maintaining trust between law enforcement officials and the communities they serve," says the NYCLU.

The NYCLU makes pointed criticism of several Rochester policies, including those dealing with police stopping and questioning residents and those dealing with "pretext stops": officers using traffic violations as "fishing expeditions."

And the NYCLU's overall message echoes an argument made by reform advocates: The public doesn't have access to critical information about policies and procedures related to how police interact with them.

Good policies are only a beginning; the question, says the Genesee Valley Civil Liberties Union's Iman Abid, is whether police are well educated, whether they're trained well enough, whether they're using the techniques properly.

"Implementation," Abid says, "is huge."

The report, says the Reverend Lewis Stewart, one of the leaders of the Coalition for Police Reform, can "further the dialogue" about police accountability and transparency. "I think it's a good report," he said in an interview last week, "that is going to spur us into more activity to make the RPD and surrounding departments more accountable."

The RPD released a statement saying that it appreciated the NYCLU's interest in the issues, that it would respond after studying the report further, and that it "looks forward to a continuing dialogue" with the organization. The release also noted that the policies in the report were several years old and many have been updated.

The statement also challenged the accuracy of one part of the report. The NYCLU had said that the RPD spied on individuals' cell phone data four times without proper legal authorization. The RPD said it had proper authorization in all of those cases except one, and that one was used to "quickly and safely locate a missing person who had threatened to commit suicide."

The statistics for Rochester

According to RPD data from January 2016, the NYCLU says, while about 63 percent of city residents were people of color, 74 percent of the police force was white. Of the 711 sworn personnel, 13 percent were women – 15 percent of the lower ranks of the force, 10 percent of the middle ranks, and none of the upper ranks (captain and above).

The RPD has extensive policies related to police interactions with people of color, people with limited English ability, and people with impaired hearing, mental illness, or other disabilities.

Police, the RPD policy says, are to ensure that residents' own safety and health is protected and that they are "cared for with understanding and compassion." Police are supposed to be trained to recognize disabilities, know how to respond and, if needed, help them.

RPD policies prohibit "bias-based profiling" in any contact with the public, including "field interviews" – the brief stopping and questioning of civilians. And they prohibit doing those interviews "based solely on a common trait of an individual" (race, age, national origin, etc.).

“Low-level stops and field interviews are among the most common interactions between police officers and the public," says the NYCLU, "but they’re also among the least transparent and most susceptible to abuse."

The RPD's policy, the NYCLU says, doesn't provide enough guidance on when officers can conduct field interviews and how to conduct them.

The NYCLU also raises concerns about police "pretext stops": stopping motorists for suspected traffic violations and using those stops "to engage in unrelated, suspicion-less fishing expeditions."

"Pretext stops drive racial profiling," the NYCLU says, "and erode trust between police and communities, particularly communities of color."

In addition, the form that officers use during field interviews contains a question about an arrestee's place of birth. "Questions about place of birth or citizenship should not be a routine part of police encounters," the NYCLU says. "Immigrant communities may be less likely to trust local law enforcement if they think an officer is investigating their immigration status."

People of color are arrested at a disproportionate rate for "low-level offenses," the NYCLU says. In 2012, 2013, and 2014, Rochester police arrested 2,502 people for marijuana possession – 89 percent of them people of color. Police arrested 376 for disorderly conduct – 78 percent of them people of color. And they arrested 128 for second-degree harassment – 75 percent of them people of color.

The RPD reported that from 2012 through 2015, 69 percent of the people against whom police used force were people of color.

A major concern for local police-reform advocates has been police oversight and how accusations of police misconduct are handled. From January 2012 to October 2015, the NYCLU says, the RPD received 291 complaints against police – with 985 specific allegations – two-thirds of them filed by civilians.

Many of those filed in 2015 were still under investigation, but of those filed from 2012 through 2014, the RPD judged that only 11 percent were "sustained." All of those "resulted in disciplinary action," the NYCLU says, "the most common of which was issuance of a memorandum."

The RPD's documents contained "little substantive policy information on the department's overall approach to discipline," the NYCLU says. Nor was there anything that laid out a "presumptive range of penalties based on the type of violation," the NYCLU says.

One area of particular concern to the NYCLU was the RPD's use of "Stingrays" – "military grade technology that mimics cell phone towers and allows police to spy on cell phones in the area by sweeping up data on people's locations and the numbers they call."

The RPD's records indicate that Rochester "did not have a policy governing the use of its Stingrays separate from its more general surveillance policies," the NYCLU report says. And while the RPD's policy is to destroy or seal information it gets from technological surveillance, the NYCLU says the department "did not fully reckon with all the legal and privacy concerns implicated by the devices."

"To fully understand the scope and impact of surveillance on our communities," the NYCLU says, "local police departments must actively engage the public in decisions over how – and more fundamentally, whether – to deploy new technologies before deciding to spend huge sums of money to obtain and use them."

The NYCLU was also concerned about a nondisclosure agreement with the FBI on the use of Stingrays "that sought to prevent public disclosure about the use or even existence of the devices."

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