Rochester's next police chief, expected to be named later this month, will walk into an extraordinarily tough job: fighting crime and improving police-community relations.
At the same time.
Over the past couple of weeks, we've gotten vivid examples of how hard that will be. There've been almost daily reports of shootings, fights, and stabbings. Reining in that violence was a key issue during Mayor-elect Lovely Warren's campaign, and she talked about getting more guns off the streets and cracking down on street-corner drug sales.
But Warren also talked about the need for better relations between Rochester police and the community, about the need to build the community's trust in the RPD.
Distrust of the police is a long-standing problem in Rochester, and it flared up again Thanksgiving week. The morning before Thanksgiving, police arrested three Edison Tech students who were standing on Main Street downtown, waiting with several other teenagers for a bus to take them to a basketball scrimmage.
To many Rochesterians, the arrests were shocking, a further indication of racial profiling in the RPD. But few things involving police actions are simple.
Here's what the students and their coach say happened, according to reports by the Democrat and Chronicle and television stations: The teenagers were waiting for the bus where their coach had told them to wait. A Rochester police officer told them to leave, and despite their attempt to explain why they were there, they were put in handcuffs.
As they were being arrested, the media reports say, their coach, Jacob Scott, drove up in his car, got out, asked the police why the students were being arrested, and explained why they were there. The officer threatened to arrest the coach, and the teenagers were taken to jail, booked, fingerprinted, and later released when their families posted bail.
Here's the story from the police reports: Officer Eliud Rodriguez, on duty at the corner of Main and Clinton, watched "a group of seven to nine males" standing in front of the S&S Grocery (a few feet west of that intersection) for five to 10 minutes. He saw pedestrians having to walk around the group, and he saw "at least two" customers who had to walk through the middle of the group to leave the store. [The incident reports are attached at the bottom of this article.]
According to the police reports, Rodriguez first called out to the teenagers, asking them to move, and when they didn't, he walked to the boys, told them they couldn't continue to block the store entrance, and again asked them to leave. When one teenager said they were waiting for a bus, the officer told him they had to wait at the bus stop farther west on that block. When the group failed to leave, the arrests began.
Also according to the police reports, the owner of the S&S Grocery and one of his employees say they had asked the teenagers to leave and they had refused. And Police Chief James Sheppard told the Democrat and Chronicle that he thinks the arrest was justified. "He suggested," D&C reporters Jon Hand and James Johnson wrote, "that there might be more to the event than has come to light."
The students' arrest creates one more difficult situation for the police department. It isn't against the law to be on Main Street, regardless of your age, and it seems clear that the teenagers were indeed waiting for a bus to take them to a scrimmage. The police reports contain no indication that the boys mouthed off or did anything illegal.
Yes, if they were blocking the entrance to a store, they should have moved. And yes, technically, even if they weren't blocking the entrance, if a police officer told them to move, they should have moved.
Context is important, too: Main Street has been a frequent trouble spot, with students congregating and fighting. And downtown business leaders have pleaded for police and government officials to get control of the street. If we ask police officers to watch crowds of teenagers and try to make sure they don't cause trouble, at what point do we want them to step in? And if teenagers refuse to obey a reasonable request by a police officer, what do we want the officer to do? Shrug his shoulders and walk away?
But the context of these arrests is broader than that. These were teenagers, and teenagers don't always make mature judgments. Was their failure to move so serious that the officer needed to handcuff them and take them to jail? Did it warrant creating an arrest record for these three boys?
Also part of the context: the long-standing tension between the police and some parts of the community, particularly the black community. Did the police assume that because the teenagers were black, they might cause problems?
All of us in the Rochester community need to confront the issue of black teenagers downtown. We need a solution – and it can't be to simply remove the kids. They have as much right to be on Main Street as anybody.
They also have as much responsibility as anybody to behave properly. And it's the behavior problem that we haven't figured out how to deal with.
But finding a way to deal with fights and intimidation is one thing. Dealing with kids waiting for a bus to go to a basketball scrimmage is another. Even if the teenagers disobeyed the officer, was arrest the only recourse?
In one respect, the arrest of these three teenagers is an isolated incident. But it made news because of its context, and because of concerns about racial profiling. It may very well further increase the lack of trust that parts of the community have in the RPD. And it is highlighting, once again, the need for public-safety policies that are effective not just short term but also long term. And that will have to be based on policies and actions that the full community trusts and respects.
During her campaign, Lovely Warren pledged exactly that approach: "a tough, holistic response that addresses the root causes of crime, while also cracking down on criminals and gun-related violence," she said in her public-safety issue paper – "innovative policing, targeted interventions, and common-sense reforms that foster improved relations between residents and police."
Can she, her police chief, and the RPD pull that off in a city wracked by black-on-black violence and burdened by one of the biggest concentrations of poverty in the nation? Can they do it despite financial challenges that will limit the department's budget?
The police chief is only one of the key officials Warren will be naming as she builds her administration. At the moment, it feels like this may be one of the most important.
Sheriff Patrick O'Flynn wants a $37,000 raise – as County Executive Maggie Brooks insists that the county is so strapped for money that it will need to cut $1.3 million in day-care funding and that it needs to up the fees on businesses and residents in this high-poverty city. Two things:
1) This is another example of the county treating the city and its residents as The Other. The county, like the city, has money problems. But as it tries to deal with them, the county is backing away from the Morin-Ryan Community of Monroe philosophy. This isn't the first time the county has done it. And it won't be the last.
2) This is another example of county Republican leaders doing something because they can. County Legislature Democrats are, essentially, powerless. It sure would be nice to see resistance from some Republicans with a heart (or, at the least, from some Republicans who recognize that if the city and its residents fail, the suburbs will, too).
Flags were at half-staff all over New York on Friday as a tribute to Nelson Mandela. It was not an empty gesture; during the long struggle to rid South Africa of apartheid, many New Yorkers – like people all over the world – were inspired by Mandela and other South African anti-apartheid leaders, joining the fight for an end to apartheid and for Mandela's release from prison. It was a broad, sustained, international effort that reached into the halls and offices of universities, governments, and businesses, including those in Rochester.
Mandela's contributions went far beyond his enormous efforts for the people of his own country. In his fight for justice, Mandela set an example, by his willingness to risk both prison and death and, after being freed, by his insistence on forgiveness and reconciliation.
He lived a long, long life, dying last week at 95. But while his death wasn't unexpected, the news was still a jolt. And at the moment, it feels like the world's moral fabric has developed a very large hole.