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Police Accountability Board is essential for public trust 

City Council is again considering changes to the way Rochester handles complaints about police conduct. Legislation revising the police oversight process is expected to be introduced soon, and following that, Council President Loretta Scott says, there’ll be public forums and hearings.

We’re headed into an emotional discussion, and I doubt it’ll be pleasant. But this is a conflict that we have to go through. The current process has to change, for the good of the public, for the good of police officers, and for the integrity of Rochester’s criminal justice system.

Obviously police officers face threats, and work in situations, that most of us don’t. Last week's multiple shootings is only one example. Obviously, those things are in the back of officers’ minds as they go about their jobs every day. Obviously, too, they understand a lot about policing that the rest of us don’t. None of that excuses police misconduct.

Right now, the police oversee themselves. If you want to complain about how a police officer treats you, you file a complaint with the Center for Dispute Settlement or the Rochester Police Department. From that point on, the police department is in charge.

You are interviewed by the RPD’s Professionals Standards Section, something many people would find intimidating if they were complaining about a police officer's actions. The Professional Standards Section determines whether your complaint is justified. An independent body called the Civilian Review Board, which is overseen by the Center for Dispute Settlement, then reviews the PSS findings and issues its own findings and recommendations, but it can’t overrule the PSS.

Then the police chief reviews everything and decides whether the complaint is justified, and if so, what kind of discipline should be applied.

No police officer I’ve ever talked to condones misconduct. But that doesn’t mean it never happens. There’ve been too many stories, locally and nationally, about police officers’ use of excessive force. The public has to trust that when those stories are true, justice will follow.

I assume that the vast majority of Rochester police officers agree. I also assume that Rochester police officers want the community’s trust. In some parts of the community, they have that trust. But not in all of it. That won’t change unless the oversight process changes.

Change won’t be easy. For one thing, state law has a lot to say about who has final authority over police officers and their actions. And a lot of issues affecting officers’ work conditions must be negotiated in collective bargaining.

Last spring, a coalition of reform activists released an extensive report on police accountability. It included examples of stronger oversight systems in other cities and a detailed recommendation for a new process for Rochester. Earlier this month, Council President Scott released a draft of proposed new legislation, and it includes a bit of what the reform activists have been calling for. It provides for more civilian involvement, and it creates an independent accountability board that would have the power to conduct investigations.

But the legislation has glaring deficiencies, and the result is that the RPD would continue to be in charge of overseeing itself. Under state law, can that change? The city’s law department seems to think it can’t. An analysis by an outside law firm says it can.

However difficult it is, we’ve got to get this right this time. Community trust in the RPD is too important – for police officers and the community – to accept yet another weak version of reform.

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