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Police and community: The path to real reform

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Police-community relations in Rochester have been under stress for decades. And that stress probably increased a notch this past weekend, when a Rochester police officer was shot while he was responding to an unrelated 911 call.

The shooting is a tragedy, and it underscores the depth of the violence plaguing some neighborhoods in this city. It also underscores the very real risks that Rochester police officers take on our behalf, risks that most of us will never experience at work.

In the hours after the shooting, community leaders responded the way they should have, with statements condemning the shooting and urging prayers for Officer Jeremy Nash and his family. I hope, though, that this doesn't keep those leaders from responding courageously to another challenge: the need to reform our system of policing.

Rochester needs to make deep, difficult changes, in the way it staffs and trains its police force, the way its police force operates in the community, and the way it investigates its officers' actions and follows through on what it finds.

In our report last week, "A Matter of Trust," we began an extensive look at those issues, and we'll be continuing that effort in the months ahead. Unfortunately, this is not a new issue for this publication; we've have been reporting on it throughout our 45-year history. That Rochester has made so little progress in all that time should make us all feel deeply ashamed.

City Council has begun what its leaders say will be a review of the current police oversight system: the way complaints about police officers' actions are investigated, reported, and acted on. There are numerous problems with that system. But based on discussions with several city officials recently, I'm pessimistic.

Some Councilmembers, for instance, suggested speeding up investigations into citizen complaints and making the process more "transparent." Fine. But those are tweaks to the current system, not real reform.

Real reform will have to include a truly independent investigation of citizens' complaints. That won't guarantee that police-community relations will improve, because – as we noted last week, true community policing will require extensive rethinking of many areas of policing. But independent investigation of complaints is an absolute necessity.

None of this will be easy, and many police officers will resist independent investigation – for understandable reasons. Without it, though, it will be impossible to rebuild trust between police and the community. And rebuilding trust is essential – for police officers' wellbeing as well as for the community's.

Corrections,

amplifications

Some additional notes on our article, "A Matter of Trust":

We stated that a report by police-reform activists says police "shouldn't be involved in training members" of a Police Accountability Board. The report does not say that.

We also referred to the report as an "April report." Two reform groups – Enough Is Enough and the Coalition for Police Reform – and the report's authors, Barbara Lacker-Ware and Theodore Forsyth, held a news conference to publicly release the report on April 11. It had been distributed previously, in February.

The report calls for an 11-member, independent, Police Accountability Board, with some members elected by the public and some appointed by City Council and the mayor. The authors say that they have since rejected that idea and that they are "fleshing out a community appointment process."

Our article stated that if the Accountability Board found evidence of police misconduct, it could "recommend" disciplinary action and retraining. That wording could have implied that the board would be simply advisory. The article's sidebar does note that if the board and the chief disagreed on disciplinary action, the board "would have the final say."

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