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Police, community, and the gap in trust


City Council is considering major changes in the way Rochester handles civilian complaints about police conduct. Ideally, the revisions could improve public trust in the police, particularly among people of color. And that would help police.

That’s the hope of the legislation’s supporters, anyway. How police will feel about the change is another matter.

A deep gulf exists between the police officers’ union and City Council on issues related to police oversight, and between police and many people of color. Police point to the dangers they face on the job. People of color point not only to high-profile national cases of white police officers shooting unarmed black people but also to personal experience: being stopped and questioned as they walk in their own neighborhood, coaching their sons on how to respond to police questioning.

In an interview with WXXI, Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo laid out the reasons the union opposes City Council's draft legislation. - PHOTO BY DENISE YOUNG, WXXI
  • In an interview with WXXI, Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo laid out the reasons the union opposes City Council's draft legislation.
Underscoring their concern: local cases in which police officers have been accused of injuring black residents who had not committed a crime. Among the recent cases is that of Christopher Pate, who was stopped by two officers who thought he fit the description of a man they were looking for. Pate says he showed his identification, proving that he wasn’t the suspect, but the officers arrested him for disorderly conduct, handcuffed him, and beat him. The charges against Pate were dropped, but Pate says he suffered broken bones as a result of the beating. And in a rare move, the police chief suspended the officers, Michael Sippel and Spenser McAvoy, and referred the case to the district attorney.

A grand jury didn't charge McAvoy, but Sippel is now awaiting trial on a misdemeanor assault charge.
Over the years, successive mayors and City Councils have tried to improve the way the city handles complaints about police, but the reforms have often amounted to little more than tinkering. In part, that's because the officials have felt that state law and contracts with the Locust Club (the officers’ union) limit what they could do. Meantime, the city has continued to pay to settle civil suits involving police use of force – last year, hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Currently, when someone files a complaint about a police officer’s conduct, the Professional Standards Section of the Rochester Police Department does the investigation. The police chief makes the final decision about whether the officer’s actions are justified and what discipline is needed, if any. And almost no information about any of that is made public. The result is a complaint system that has fed distrust in the police in some parts of the community.

The legislation City Council is considering goes well beyond tinkering. If it passes – and withstands pushback from the police union – city residents will be heavily involved in the oversight of the police department. A nine-member, independent civilian board will be in charge of investigating complaints about police officer’s actions, and it will make decisions about discipline.

Council has been working on the legislation for more than a year, pushed by the reform group the Police Accountability Board Alliance, Council members’ own observations of problems, and stories they’ve been told by people in the community – “over and over,” says Council President Loretta Scott.

Council members have talked to police about those concerns, Scott says. They have not talked with the police union itself about the legislation, she says, because the Warren administration, not Council, negotiates with the union.

On WXXI’s “Connections” show last week, Councilmembers Adam McFadden and Willie Lightfoot insisted that the legislation is not anti-police. “It’s anti-bad behavior,” said McFadden. Council hasn’t gotten the blessing of the Locust Club, though.

A recent WXXI interview with Mike Mazzeo, president of the police union, showed the depth of the divide. Over an hour and a half, he laid out his concerns about Council’s legislation with WXXI reporter James Brown.

Mazzeo agreed that the current system needs changing, but for the most part, he wasn't talking about the kinds of changes Council is proposing. And he opposes what Council is considering. Police officers have to be involved in planning any changes, and they haven’t been, he said. And, he said, Council has rushed into its legislation.

“How is it not rushed,” he said, “if the Council has already written legislation, but they have not once sat down with us? They've not brought us into a discussion in any way.”

“No matter what anybody may perceive, or feel, we need to have conversations,” he said. “We need to have the ability to exchange ideas, concerns, opinions, and insight to this matter.”

“Certainly you would expect them to want to hear insight from the police union who represent the police officers,” Mazzeo said.

“We're not trying to defend somebody who is undefendable,” Mazzeo said. But, he said, police are “unique.” “Different.” And, he said, many people don’t understand the complexity and the challenges of a police officer’s job.

“It's a very, very difficult job out there,” Mazzeo said, and he related a recent case when 13 officers responded after a man shot three people, led officers on a high-speed chase across the city, and was apparently planning to kill more people.

“The reality of what we faced and what's faced out there every day: It's a very, very – potentially can be a very, very violent environment,” Mazzeo said.

“When people talk about Baltimore, and Ferguson,” he said, “I talk about what's going around the country that's leading to police officers being shot, and ambushed.”

“Has anyone asked over the period of time how many police officers have been assaulted?” Mazzeo said. “How many police officers have been hospitalized? How many police officers have been medically retired, because of actions they took as a police officer?”

“There's no police officer, I don't care who you talk to in this city, that wants to get into a use of force,” Mazzeo said. “Nobody wants to get hurt, number one, and nobody wants to be put through the scrutiny and the public and media hype that occurs without any due process. Because all they see is a 10-second video clip, or a cellphone camera, and everybody draws the answer and the conclusion.”

Mazzeo also said he thinks Council doesn’t realize what it’s getting into, how time-consuming the investigation process is. A board composed of volunteers and a staff with one or two investigators won’t be able to handle the number of cases they’ll be dealing with, he said.

City Council’s legislation is bold, particularly in moving discipline authority from the police chief to an independent civilian board. Mayor Lovely Warren is convinced that state law and the police union contract prohibit that change, and she has proposed her own legislation – which Council is sitting on – that keeps that responsibility with the police chief. Warren is convinced that if Council takes that step, the union will sue.

Council recognizes that possibility. But, Scott said recently, “We can’t not do this out of fear of being sued.”

In his interview with WXXI, Mazzeo had this response: “Everyone and their brother said that we intend to sue. We would like to avoid taking... Listen, if we have to take a legal action to protect the rights and the due process of our officers, we're going to have to take whatever action we feel is appropriate. That's why we keep saying, ‘Why don't we take this thing apart and do this correctly and then we may not get to this point in time.’”

Mazzeo noted that both Council’s legislation and the mayor’s have the Police Accountability Board involved in police policy and training. Because those are covered in collective bargaining, he said, the union “would have to have to be a part of that.”

Supporters of a police accountability board have argued that reform could help rebuild the community’s trust in police. During the WXXI interview, Mazzeo addressed the issue of trust several times, but from police officers’ perspective. Officers don’t trust even the current system of investigating their conduct, Mazzeo said.
Police officers need to be involved in reforming the system, he said, because they have to buy into it. And Mazzeo brought up the possibility that officers might be reluctant to respond to calls because, he said, of concern about the oversight system.

“When you say buy into it, it is a law, right?” asked WXXI’s James Brown. “You're a law enforcement officer. If this were passed, what would not buying into this look like?

“I took a phone call this morning from a member who had a concern,” Mazzeo said, “and I think what his concern was is exactly what our concerns would be on this if they didn't have trust or belief that the system was fair. They're going to feel that ‘If I take an action, I am going to be unfairly scrutinized for the action. I could lose my job. If I'm not suspended for an ungodly period of time where I can't make my mortgage payment, I could then lose my job, or I could end up in jail or prison over it. So I'm not going to take this action.’”

“If they don't take certain actions,” Mazzeo said, “then public safety is going to be affected in the city.” Officers often have names of people the RPD is trying to locate and arrest, he said. “Our officers have to go out and find them.”

“Sometimes,” he said, “it's as simple as, you're driving by and you're aware and you know the individual, or you recognize the individual. Now the officer says, ‘Do I step out of the car and approach that person? What if it leads to some confrontation or action and I lose everything over it? So, I'm just going to drive by.’”

What about the rights of the victim in that particular crime? Mazzeo said. “What if that wanted person commits another crime or kills someone?”

Near the end of the interview, WXXI pressed Mazzeo again on the kind of reform he would suggest. And Mazzeo again talked about the need for investigators to understand the challenges officers face, and the difficulty of training someone to understand the challenges. “Listen,” he said, “just to throw out something: Why wouldn't you maybe say, ‘Well, maybe an investigative team then. You might want to have a law enforcement officer and maybe a civilian. They can both check and balance each other.’ Has anyone talked about that? Has anyone brought that to anyone's attention? No. Let's just throw the cake together.”

‘So in your ideal board,” said Brown, “there would be essentially as many civilians as law enforcement officers?

“No, James,” Mazzeo said. “I'm throwing out an answer. I don't know. I honestly don't know. I honestly don't know what the best way is. I think it's going to take the meetings of minds to determine that. We haven't had that.”

After decades of protests and decades of attempts at reform, it’s hard to think that there can be a meeting of the minds.

City Council is continuing to seek public comments and could modify the current version of its legislation, although Scott says she doesn’t anticipate major changes. Council probably won’t vote on a final version until at least its March meeting, Scott says.