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Struggle for Justice

Rochester’s Historic Police Accountability Vote

We know what happens when a police department relies on internal mechanisms to discipline officers who break the rules.

Too often, officers escape punishment when they abuse the people they are supposed to protect. A lack of meaningful police accountability not only skirts justice but also puts people’s lives in danger when officers who repeatedly harm civilians keep their jobs.

For years, residents of Rochester, particularly people of color, have had to sit and watch as police officers harass, harm, and kill their friends and loved ones, only to get a slap on the wrist and evade all forms of accountability.

The city’s Civilian Review Board had the power to accept complaints and make recommendations to the police commissioner, but it didn’t have the discipline powers it needed to hold the police department accountable for officers’ misconduct. In 2017, a 111-page report examining the case for an independent Police Accountability Board found that only two percent of the 1,200 cases reviewed by the CRB between 2002 and 2015 received any discipline, and that the harshest penalty was a suspension of six months. A whopping 77 percent of civilian complaints filed between 2002 and 2015 resulted in counseling memos or letters of reprimand as the only discipline measure taken against the officers. From 2008 to 2015, there were no internal investigations regarding use of force by RPD officers; over the same time period there were 156 investigations of “procedure.”

For four years, the NYCLU’s Genesee Valley Chapter has worked alongside community advocates to shape a vision for a civilian-controlled Police Advisory Board in Rochester. We empowered those most impacted by abusive police practices to take charge in this work; their voices were lifted in meetings with lawmakers, police officials, and the public. Community organizations, faith leaders, and others shared these people’s stories with their members, congregations, and communities, educating voters about the importance of police accountability and why this was the moment to demand it.

In May 2019, the Rochester City Council passed a resolution supporting a civilian-controlled Police Advisory Board, and on Election Day, 75 percent of Rochester voters approved the ballot proposition. The nine-member board would be assisted by an executive director and staff and would make Rochester the first municipality in New York— and one of just a handful in the country — with a civilian board that has the power to discipline officers.

The Rochester police union filed two lawsuits to try to stop the board’s work, one challenging the legality of the board itself and another arguing that the board is invalid because it violates the collective bargaining agreement between Rochester and the police union. In May 2020, the Rochester Police Accountability Board was stripped of its disciplinary powers through a decision issued in state Supreme Court.

This was a disappointing setback, but Rochester’s vote sent a resounding message: the power to discipline officers must be given to an outside authority, not be left in the hands of the police. And there is a longstanding recognition by New York courts, the state legislature, and municipalities that control over police discipline is a power that rightly belongs to local government officials.

To create better relationships between the police and communities, the city must undo the harms of the continued over-policing of neighborhoods, and the courts must allow the board to function as voters intended. This effort to undermine accountability is unacceptable, and we will continue to fight for the will of Rochester’s voters.

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Rochester residents’ vote to increase police accountability stands as an important testament to the shifting public will demonstrated in 2020’s nationwide protests against police brutality. Read more about the package of long-demanded reforms passed by New York lawmakers in response to these protests.