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Activists demand politicians dump money from police groups 

In politics and in lawmaking, money talks. It can drive access to elected officials, influence laws and policy, and speak to the values of candidates.

With protests over police brutality and systemic racism in policing raging across the country, some activists are turning their attention to what could be called “blue money” in politics — contributions to political campaigns from law enforcement organizations.

Some elected officials locally and across the state this week announced they would redirect campaign donations they received from police and correctional officer groups to bail funds and mutual aid organizations that mostly serve communities of color.

The move was prompted in part by calls to divest campaign coffers of blue money from activists, including those who organized the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Rochester.

"I think it puts out a message to the community to say 'OK, we are not prioritizing police here. We want to prioritize the organizations and the communities and to center those people first,’” said Iman Abid, director of the Genesee Valley chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union and a protest organizer.
click to enlarge Iman Abid, director of New York Civil Liberties Union's Genesee Valley chapter, said that by donating contributions they've received from police organizations, elected officials can send a message that they want to prioritize communities and community-based organizations. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • Iman Abid, director of New York Civil Liberties Union's Genesee Valley chapter, said that by donating contributions they've received from police organizations, elected officials can send a message that they want to prioritize communities and community-based organizations.
Politicians have long claimed that accepting a political donation does not make them beholden to the donor.

But Abid argued that any donation suggests a form of commitment. She said activists want officials to jettison the police money to show by action, not words, that they place greater importance on investing in education and community-based services, such as health and mental health education programs, than in traditional policing.

“Electeds play a huge part and have so much power in all of this and the direction it's going to go in,” Abid said.

The calls from activists have gotten some elected officials to move swiftly and, in some cases, explain why they had accepted the money in the first place.

Rochester City Council member Mitch Gruber, who accepted a $1,000 contribution from the Rochester Police Locust Club in 2017, said in a Facebook post that he pledged to give the same amount to the Avenue Blackbox Theatre, a Rochester performing arts organization.

His post came within hours of Free the People Roc, a group borne of the recent Black Lives Matter protests, making its divestment demand.

click to enlarge City Council member Mitch Gruber - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • City Council member Mitch Gruber
Gruber explained in his post that he had been endorsed by the Locust Club, the Rochester police union. He wrote that he was conflicted about the endorsement due to his advocacy for a citywide Police Accountability Board, but that he decided to accept the money and “double down” on efforts to pass the board. He added that he wouldn’t accept the union endorsement in the future if it were offered.

“Given the gravity of the national crises before us, it feels inadequate but necessary to say, I pledge to continue to support politically active Rochesterians as an ally, contributor, accomplice, and advocate as we all strive to build a healthier, more equitable, inclusive, and just Rochester,” Gruber wrote.

At-large Council member Jackie Ortiz said she's also committed to donating the $2,000 she's received from the Locust Club. She'll be directing the funds to Yoga 4 a Good Hood. At-large Council member Malik Evans confirmed the he's donating $1,000 he received from the Locust Club to a fund set up by local Black Lives Matter organizers.

Assembly member Harry Bronson, whom state campaign finance records show has received roughly $16,000 in contributions from the Locust Club since 2009, said he was giving all of it away, splitting it among Rochester Black Pride, the Avenue Black Box Theatre, and Flower City Noire Collective.

A labor attorney, Bronson said he received the contributions — along with donations from other unions — because of his work on job site safety, preserving pensions, and workers rights.

“I fully appreciate and I hear the voices of color and I think this is the appropriate thing to do,” Bronson said.

Alex Yudelson, Bronson’s opponent in the June 23 Democratic primary, hasn’t reported any contributions from police organizations.

Other elected officials representing the city have also received money from the Locust Club, although it was not immediately clear whether any or all of them had chosen to divest. For example, County Executive Adam Bello received $750 from the Locust Club when he was county clerk and $2,500 from the union during his run for office last year.

Several state lawmakers from downstate districts donated law enforcement contributions they’ve received to community bail funds, including Assembly members Nathalia Fernandez, Catalina Cruz, Carmen De La Rosa, and Aravella Simotas, as well as Senator Michael Gianaris.

In a related development, Citizen Action of New York, which has a chapter in Rochester, is pressing lawmakers to act on two pieces of legislation that supporters claim would make police more accountable to the public and open up records on matters of officer discipline.

“The police unions, police-related organizations, and prosecutorial organizations and lobbies have so much power in the halls of Albany that most of these things have been crushed when they've tried to move forward,” said Ravi Mangla, political education program manager for Citizen Action of New York.

On the bills, the STAT Act, would require New York police departments to report demographic and geographic data on low-level offenses, and give detailed public reports when someone dies in police custody.

The other measure would repeal section 50-a of the Civil Service Law, which public officials often invoke to withhold details about police misconduct complaints and related disciplinary actions.

Police unions across the country, including in Rochester, have fought efforts to increase transparency around police officer disciplinary records in part because of personnel protections in their collective bargaining agreements.

Abid said that was another reason for elected officials to redirect contributions from police organizations.

"We would be missing out on a whole lot if we didn't include police unions in this conversation,” Abid said.

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at jmoule@rochester-citynews.com.

This story has been updated.


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