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Warren, Council offering separate police oversight plans


Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren - FILE PHOTO
  • Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
[ UPDATED DECEMBER 28 ] Mayor Lovely Warren sent City Council  legislation Thursday afternoon that would establish stronger civilian oversight of Rochester police officers. But a few hours later, Council President Loretta Scott said that Council plans to introduce its own legislation, and it's likely that the two proposals will differ in a significant area: the discipline of Rochester police officers.

And late Thursday night, the Police Accountability Board Alliance – the citizens coalition pushing for reform of Rochester's current oversight system – issued a statement strongly opposing Warren's legislation.

"The Mayor’s proposal is unacceptable and undermines the work done by City Council and the Police Accountability Board Alliance," the group said.

The Alliance has pressed hard for a Police Accountability Board that meets what it refers to as "five pillars necessary to effectively ensure true accountability." The five:
  • The accountability board must be an independent agency of city government, separate from the Rochester Police Department;
  • It must have the power to independently investigate complaints of police misconduct;
  • It must have subpoena power to compel the production of evidence and witnesses;
  • It must have the power to discipline police officers using a "disciplinary matrix" that would list disciplinary actions for failure to follow specific RPD policies and procedures;
  • It must have the power to "review and evaluate RPD patterns, practices, policies, and procedures to recommend systemic changes and to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place."
The mayor's proposal includes some of what the Alliance has pressed for, but not all. One key difference: granting the accountability board the power to impose discipline.  The city's law office insists that state law gives disciplinary authority only to the police chief, and the police union is almost sure to fight any change in court. But an attorney at Harris Beach law firm has said that by changing the city charter, disciplinary authority could be given to an entity like a civilian oversight board.

The effort to draft a new police oversight process has created a rare difference of opinion between the mayor and City Council President Loretta Scott. City Council itself had been trying to craft legislation and had hoped to have it ready for a vote several months ago but had been wrestling with the issue of discipline of officers, among other challenges.

In the press release announcing Council's plan, Scott said she would review Warren's legislation "at length." And she added: "The Council has worked diligently for several months with the members of the Police Accountability Board Alliance in an effort to draft legislation that will create a PAB that is transparent, accountable, and credible."

Scott said Council is completing its draft legislation and plans to submit it for consideration at its January 15 meeting. Following that, Council will hold "multiple public forums" to get community feedback, she said.

"I want the legislation that is ultimately passed to create a PAB for our city that achieves what our residents deserve," Scott said, "a PAB that works for our entire community, residents and officers alike."

Warren's legislation will go through the standard City Council process, being considered first by a Council committee. It's possible that Council will hold Warren's legislation in committee and vote its own legislation out. Regardless, it's not likely that the full Council will vote on either proposal in January, given the controversial nature and the high public interest.

Warren is proposing a nine-member Police Accountability Board that would have some, but not all, of the authority that local activists have been pushing for. It could review all files and findings of the police department's own investigations into complaints of excessive force, and it could then conduct its own investigation if it felt that was needed. It would have subpoena power and could compel testimony.

It would also create a "disciplinary matrix," establishing specific levels of penalties for violations of police policies and procedures. It could recommend discipline and charges to the police chief, based on the disciplinary matrix. And the chief would refrain from acting on complaints until the PAB provided its recommendation. The chief would not have to follow the PAB's recommendation on disciplining officers, however.  If the chief decides on an outcome different from the PAB's recommendation, he or she would have to explain the reasoning in writing.

Under Warren's proposal, the board would also "review, assess, and make recommendations" on the police department's policies and procedures related to the use of force and it would publish monthly and yearly reports.

Of the nine members on the board, three would be recommended by the Police Accountability Board Alliance and three by City Council. Three would be appointed by the mayor. The new Police Accountability Board would choose an executive director, who would be approved by City Council. The estimated first-year cost, city officials said, is $260,000 to $300,000.

The Alliance says that the estimated budget in Warren's proposal "significantly underfunds" the accountability board, and that while the budget provides for an executive director, it doesn't fund a full-time investigative staff. The Alliance also says Warren's proposal "dramatically curtails the PAB’s investigative power" and places restrictions on the board's power to review RPD policies and procedures. And, the Alliance says, under Warren's proposal, only three of the nine members of the board would be recommended by the Alliance, giving government appointees the majority on the board.

"Overall," the Alliance statement said, "the mayor’s proposal is under-powered, underfunded, and an underhanded attempt to undermine the demands of the community. "

The group urged supporters to attend City Council's committee meeting at 4 p.m. Thursday, January 10 "to voice their opposition to the mayor’s proposal" and to attend Council's January 15 meeting.

This story has been updated to reflect the announcement by City Council President Loretta Scott and the statement by the Police Accountability Board Alliance. It has also been amended to correct an error: the initial version of this article incorrectly referred to the accountability board as an "advisory board."