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PAB releases input on Cuomo-mandated police reform plan

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Banning the use of tear gas and “drastically expanding” funding for alternatives to police response are among the initiatives being called for by the Rochester Police Accountability Board in a wide-ranging policy document expected to help guide police reform.

The document was drafted in response to questions on policing posed by a City Hall working group tasked with coming up with recommendations to reform policing. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has mandated that every municipality in the state arrive at a reform plan on April 1, or risk losing state police funding.

The Police Accountability Board is the first of four organizations in the working group to devise recommendations to release its responses. The other organizations are expected to complete their responses in the coming weeks and for a reform plan to eventually be put to the City Council for a vote at some point in the future.

The three other organizations include the Rochester Police Department, United Christian Leadership Ministry, and the Racial and Structural Equity Commission. The working group includes representatives of these organizations, as well as City Council members.

“We welcome the PAB sharing its draft input regarding police reform and reinvention with the city’s working group members and the public,” city spokesperson Justin Roj said. “This is another important step in our efforts to respond to Governor Cuomo’s executive order regarding the reimagining of policing.”

The 90-page document, a blend of policy proposals, concepts, and testimony from community members, spells out a progressive vision of policing that hits many of the notes activists have been demanding for months in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Daniel Prude at the hands of police.

Along with expanding programs that offer alternatives to policing and prohibiting chemical weapons, the board advocates for a strictly enforced ban on chokeholds and headlocks, and creating a public database for RPD arrest information, 911 call data, use of force reports, and a variety of other police procedural records.

“I think unlike the past, we have an organization, controlled by the community, that is dedicated solely to seeing change through, in the police accountability board,” Conor Dwyer Reynolds, the executive director of the PAB, said.

Among the suggestions is an idea of moving all public safety departments under one umbrella. Before 1970, all of Rochester’s first responder operations were operated under one department — the Public Safety Department. As reported by the Democrat & Chronicle in 1970, city hall Republicans pushed through a plan to abolish the department and create two new commissions, one for police and the other for fire bureaus.

Board Chair Shani Wilson and Reynolds believe that not having the police department operating as an independent entity, but rather in tandem with other departments, could help level the playing field on how resources are doled out.
Police Accountability Board Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds (left) and Board Chair Shani Wilson. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Police Accountability Board Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds (left) and Board Chair Shani Wilson.

“So many calls that have to deal with mental health issues that are not necessarily acute need to be dealt with by a mental health professional,” Wilson said. “To have those different resources available really pushes me to believe that we need to have a different model.”

In September, the Family Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT), a 10-person social worker team designated to respond to domestic violence and mental health calls, was moved from RPD to the Department of Recreation and Human Services, as part of the newly-created Office of Crisis Intervention Services. At the same time, the Crisis Intervention Services Unit, staffed by 14 social workers, was created and added to the Office. The Office has about $1 million in funding, but the document argues the Office should be budgeted based on how many 911 calls it could potentially respond to.

“These budget and staffing figures should be made proportionate to the volume of calls that could be taken first by the Office’s staff rather than RPD officers,” the document reads.

Last year, FACIT, which responds to a variety of calls including domestic violence, suicidal persons, and mental health crises, took 3,500 calls, according to RPD public data. In that same year, domestic violence disputes alone accounted for 30,000 calls to RPD.

The PAB document notes prior attempts at reform, namely the Crimi Committee, which was formed following the 1975 shooting of 18 year old Denise Hawkins. That committee spawned 97 recommendations for reform, 85 of which were adopted. Few of those recommendations actually came to fruition.

This time around, Wilson and Reynolds are hopeful that it is the right time and place for impactful reform.

“I feel like this is just an unprecedented time,” Wilson said. “You’ve got more people that are interested in how we are exactly being policed. We have people that are very frustrated and upset and anxious to see policing changed in Rochester.”

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

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