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City makes sweeping changes to how police respond to protests 

Police converge on City Hall on Sept. 16, 2020, in response to demonstrators "occupying" the exterior of the building.

PHOTO BY MAX SCHULTE

Police converge on City Hall on Sept. 16, 2020, in response to demonstrators "occupying" the exterior of the building.

Rochester police have been barred from using dogs, tear gas, and concussion grenades, known as “flash bangs,” in response to protests and mass gatherings, under a series of sweeping policy changes announced Tuesday jointly by Mayor Malik Evans and Police Chief David Smith.

The changes also barred officers from taping over their badges to conceal their names and curtailed the use of pepper balls.

If it is determined that identifying information being worn by an officer places them in danger, they will be required to wear a unique number that is conspicuously displayed and assigned to them, according to the announcement.

The use of pepper balls must be authorized by “a high-ranking official” and the devices may not be used to clear an area during “a peaceful event.”

“We can debate about who is right or wrong about the issues behind social movements, but one thing that is not debatable is the right of the people to peaceably assemble,” Evans said in a prepared statement. “We want to ensure that, in Rochester, assemblies take place in a manner that is safe for both protesters and police.”

City spokesperson Barbara Pierce said the changes were expected to be codified in the Rochester Police Department’s general orders in the coming weeks, but that they were effective immediately.

The changes were prompted by the police response to the civil unrest that roiled the city in the summer and fall of 2020, following the deaths of Daniel Prude and George Floyd while in police custody in Rochester and Minneapolis, respectively.

In the weeks after a string of raucous demonstrations unfolded over three days in September 2020, the Democrat and Chronicle reported that officers had discharged 6,100 pepper balls, 77 canisters of tear gas, and 10 flash bangs during the protests.

Each of those nights saw more than 1,000 demonstrators gather outside Rochester Police Department headquarters on Exchange Boulevard. Police, who largely took positions behind two layers of metal and concrete barricades, reported being struck with bottles and other debris.

But the police response was widely criticized by local lawmakers as “disproportionate” and unwarranted, and later became the subject of a probe by the Rochester Police Accountability Board and an ongoing federal lawsuit brought by injured protesters.

“I’m really excited to see the details,” said Conor Dwyer Reynolds, the executive director of the PAB. “If the details are in line with what the community’s asking for and what the PAB’s asking for, this could be a really important step forward.”

Michael Mazzeo, the president of the Rochester police union, the Locust Club, said he was “blindsided” by the announcement, which was released shortly after 5 p.m.

He did not condemn the changes, but expressed frustration with one provision in particular, which called for the city’s lawyer to “be included in all planning discussion for protests and mass gatherings” and to “be present with RPD command staff during an event.”

“Any actions that were done were done by [police] leadership and people who were in positions to make those decisions,” Mazzeo said. “So now, all of a sudden, we’re going to have lawyers determine what we’re going to do?”

He added: “No line officer is making a decision to fire any tear gas or use any pepper balls or do whatever else is listed in this thing.”

Rochester City Councilmember Stanley Martin, who rose to prominence in 2020 as a protest leader with the Black Lives Matter group Free the People, said she was “cautiously optimistic” about the policy shifts.

She pointed specifically to the language of banning the use of pepper balls at “a peaceful event” as a potential cause for concern.

“Who gets to identify what a peaceful protest looks like?” Martin said. “I’m concerned that the language is so ambiguous that at any point a higher-ranking official can say, because of how loud people are or people are walking forward together, that, ‘Okay, I feel threatened, this calls for the use of pepper balls.’”

In his joint statement with the mayor, Chief David Smith said officers were committed to protecting anyone exercising their rights to “peacefully protest.”

“We’ve learned a lot over the past two years with regard to police-community interactions,” he said.
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