A City Council decision in 1985 has led a state judge to strip Rochester’s nascent Police Accountability Board of its disciplinary powers.
State Supreme Court Justice John Ark ruled Thursday that the board cannot discipline police officers or conduct hearings on disciplinary matters, two key functions of the board provided under a city law that voters overwhelmingly approved by referendum in November.
City Council President Loretta Scott said in a statement that the ruling negated the will of city residents and that the city was prepared to appeal.
- PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
- Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott
“We must operate within the context of our legal system, but the City Council is ready to defend the will of our citizens, and this decision is not the final say,” Scott said.
In his decision, Ark wrote that the local law establishing the board conflicts with parts of state Civil Service Law, provisions in the state Constitution establishing collective bargaining rights for workers, and the portions of the City Charter that lay out the powers of the mayor.
Prior to 1985, the city’s charter delegated the authority to discipline police officers to “Rochester officials,” Ark stated in his decision. But that year City Council “explicitly submitted RPD discipline matters to state law when it repealed the police discipline portion of the City Charter explicitly for the reason that this subject matter is covered in the Civil Service Law,” he wrote.
Earlier in the decision Ark wrote state Civil Service Law, which lays out disciplinary proceedings for public employees, precludes “contradictory local disciplinary regimes.” The local law specifically conflicts with state statutes specifying that final authority over how an officer is disciplined remains with the officer’s commander — either the chief or the supervising governmental body, he added.
Ark also wrote that the law interferes with the mayor’s state-granted powers to bargain with the police union over discipline.
Michael Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union that represents police officers and whose challenge to the law the court ruled, said he was pleased with the decision but not surprised.
“The issues that we brought forward and that we felt very strongly on, the court agreed with because it was the only decision the judge could come to based on law,” Mazzeo said. “It’s really that simple.”
The Police Accountability Board was established as an independent office of city government. Its initial members have been appointed and they are conducting a search for an executive director. Under the law that created it, the board was tasked with investigating allegations of officer misconduct and was given the authority to issue subpoenas, impose discipline, and assess police practices and procedures.
Ark’s decision allows the board to perform any functions unrelated to disciplining Rochester police officers.
The Rev. Lewis Stewart, a co-chair for the Rochester Coalition for Police Reform, said he was "appalled by the decision" and said he thought the judge "bowed to the police union."
"I feel that it's really going to set back a progressive revolution that was made by the people and the City Council and that was overwhelmingly voted on in the referendum," Stewart said.
Jeremy Moule is CITY’s news editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.