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Council releases its Police Accountability legislation 

[ UPDATED ] City Council unveiled a proposal for a Police Accountability Board this morning, and as expected, it differs in some key areas from the proposal Mayor Lovely Warren announced in late December. 
But in a press conference this afternoon, Council President Loretta Scott and other Council members were adamant: They believe their legislation is both possible and necessary.

Council has spent more than a year developing its legislation, Scott said, and it's been working with a coalition of activists and organizations pushing for reform.

"What we've put together reflects the needs of our community," Scott said.

Council's legislation includes a major change from the city's current police oversight system: It gives the proposed Accountability Board the power to determine the discipline for officers when it finds that they violated police department policies or procedures. Currently, the police chief has authority over officer discipline. Because of that provision, Council's legislation is sure to run into opposition and, in all likelihood, court action by the police union if it becomes law.

In Warren's legislation, discipline authority remains with the police chief, which Warren and the city's attorney insist is necessary under state law.

Asked today whether she thinks the city might be sued if Council's legislation is adopted, Scott said, "We may." But, she said, "We'll just have to face that if it happens. We can't not do this out of fear of being sued."

And while Warren could veto Council's version, Scott said that all nine members of Council have signed on to the legislation, so presumably the six votes necessary to override her veto would be assured.

Council's proposed  Accountability Board would:
  • Be an independent, autonomous office of city government;
  • Develop a "disciplinary matrix" outlining discipline for specific levels of misconduct;
  • Have the authority to "investigate and adjudicate complaints of misconduct" against the Rochester Police Department and everyone in it, based on the disciplinary matrix;
  • Have the power to investigate police actions if it believes that's necessary, even if a complaint hasn't been filed;
  • Have access to "all documents and evidence including but not limited to RPD personnel files." (This, too, seems to conflict with state law, which protects officers' personnel records.)
Council's legislation provides for a nine-person board. The mayor would appoint one member and City Council would appoint four members, one from each  district. Council would select the remaining four from a group of 12 people nominated by the  Police Accountability Board Alliance, a group of community organizations that have been pressing for major reform of Rochester's police oversight system.

click to enlarge City Council President Loretta Scott. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • City Council President Loretta Scott.
Board members would have to have lived in the City of Rochester for at least 12 months and would have to reflect the diversity of city residents "including but not limited to: age, race, creed, color, national origin, gender, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, marital status and source of income," the legislation says.

Anyone who's worked for the RPD or another law enforcement agency would be ineligible to serve on the board. Also barred from serving on the board: any current city elected officials, anyone who's served as an elected city official within the preceding three years, and anyone who has a family member who's served as an elected official in any district or municipality in New York State within the past three years.

During this afternoon's press conference, Scott emphasized the need to build trust between police and the community. The public's trust has been damaged, she and other Council members said, and strong reform of the current oversight system is essential.

"We're concerned that the public is seeing police policing themselves," Scott said. "It's hard for people to trust that. We have many good police officers, but a lot has happened to change that trust."

The core of the issue, said Council members Adam McFadden and Mitch Gruber, is transparency around the discipline of officers. Currently, no information about discipline is made public.

"We're not anti-police," said Council member Willie Lightfoot, "and we're not against the chief."

Council is including its proposal in its packet of legislation for its February meetings and will hold three forums on it, Scott said. Details on the forums are still being worked out, but one will be held on the east side of the city, one will be held on the west side, and one will be held downtown, Scott said. And she said people who want to provide comments prior to the forums can submit them to Council@cityofrochester.gov.

The current legislation is a draft version, and Council could make changes based on public comments during the forums, McFadden said.

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