ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter worked in the Rochester Police Department before moving over Greece PD.
Thursday night he offered his perspective on Daniel Prude’s death, the subsequent protests and potential changes to local policing.
Here’s a transcript of the interview:
Adam Chodak: I’ve heard you say now that there needs to be a change in policing. Is that perspective something you’ve adopted over the last couple of years? Is it a life-long perspective? But if it is recent, what prompted the change?
Todd Baxter: For me, I think it’s always been the philosophy. When I became sheriff, one of the reasons I ran for sheriff was because of the Monroe County jail and what we could do with the inmate population while they’re inside the jail and we created those systems over the last 2 years to help people while they’re incarcerated. If they want help when they’re incarcerated, we have some of the best resources to help them off a path of criminality and onto one of success. So it’s always been my mindset, my philosophy. These are human beings we’re dealing with. Some are criminals that are doing criminal activity because they’re bad people, but a lot of people get stuck in systems. A lot of people grow up in poverty.
A lot of people make bad decisions. So we have to remember that too. Do your crime, do your time, but there should be an afterlife after that. So that’s always been my philosophy of policing. I don’t how many times in my police career I gave breaks to people because I have empathy and compassion for. Go along, move along, like 2 ladies I stopped after the May 30th riots. Those are the types of philosophies I’ve always had on a personal level and then of course the modern day society has just taken that to a whole new level, the opportunity that we have. Right after George Floyd’s passing, that Friday, before the unrest in Rochester, every police chief was together on a Friday night at 5:30 talking about what can we do and that’s before the protests started. And it think there’s an opportunity to look at this from a totally different paradigm and have those conversations.
AC: As you look at those paradigms, are there any specific changes that are new to you that you’re now considering?
TB: When you talk about mental health, we, all the police departments and Monroe County Mental Health, created these FIT teams. We realized years ago that we don’t have the expertise, let alone the capacity to do the long-term solutions for the mental health issue so we started going to jobs together with FIT professionals and now we’re looking at do we really have conversations about some of these calls we can triage. There would have to be safety for everyone involved of course. And they might be able to take some of this burden off us, some of the workload off us, but also respond with someone more capable.
We’re dispatched to every fire and EMS call in the county for safety and security, but oftentimes we’ll triage that call. We’ve been there multiple times so just let the ambulance advise. So there’s ways to not only come up with practices, but also policies to have these conversations and I think that’s where we’re at. If we sat down at the table and logically thought through these things maybe we can have a better response that may solve problems long term because again we know a deputy or police officer at 2 o’clock in the morning responding to a chaotic situation is not going to be able to solve the long-term ills, whatever is occurring in that household or in that community.
AC: The Black Lives Matter movement would say the “Defend Police” motto is really about taking money away from funding for armed officers and moving into those types of teams. Would you say that’s something you can talk about when you get at that table?
TB: You talk about those things, it’s got to be systematic. I hear a lot about millions of dollars being thrown around the community and it all sounds good, but if you don’t set up a system for safety and security, some of these calls are violent, some of these people are having difficult times, the reason someone is calling 911 is that there’s chaos, something has gone seriously bad which is why 911 is being dialed. So you’ve got to set up systems with strategic planning involved. With that being said, you can also measure those calls.
So if you look at all the mental health calls we go to, how many mental health transports we make and maybe it’s a police officer there for 45 minutes, 2 police officers for 45 minutes, but one officer follows that person to the hospital and changes custody from us to the hospital, that’s another 45 minutes to an hour. If a civilian can do that for us and then actually have a mental health professional, a mental health hand-off from the house to a mental health professional, think of how much follow-up could be done, how much transfer of knowledge from a mental health community as opposed to a police officer just making sure someone got to the hospital. You can measure those things and then look at dollar bills and say if they’re going to take some of that workload off the sheriff’s department, then how do we take that funding and transfer it over here. Again, that doesn’t offend me.
A lot of my friends that wear blue uniforms might be offended, but that conversation doesn’t offend me. If we’re taking that burden off of deputies and police officers that really aren’t designed to be there anyways, but again, it’s got to be with strategy, it’s got to be with strategic thinking, it’s got to be well thought out because there’s a safety and security need there too. Denny Wright, you know. We know Denny Wright responded to a mental health call that he was very familiar with in that area and had been around as a cop there forever and that one ended up coming back to bite him. It’s got to be well thought out. There needs to be a process.
AC: How’s the morale in the department right now?
TB: I came back from Albany yesterday and I asked my under sheriff about morale and I’m very concerned about morale, you know COVID really gave us a hard time and put a lot of extra work on our deputies, the passing of Mr. Floyd. You know, we’ve worked every day, these deputies are out there working every day, the city police department is obviously working hard and they’re doing their job and we have to be responsible for safety and security, that’s our function, so we can’t assume nothing is going to happen.
May 30th can never happen again in Rochester, NY. We cannot have the looting. We cannot have the burning, we cannot have the destruction that we had and we are all about peaceful protest, but we are also about lawful protests too. So you can protest and also follow the laws or you can protest and not follow the laws so that’s that fine line we’re always walking but we have to be prepared. And if you think about it I think the officers are a bit confused. There’s an extreme amount of violence going on. There was 60 shootings within 60 days ore maybe more than that and the equivalent number of stabbings all in a given time this summer and city cops were taking 100 guns off the street and the community that lives in those tough environments are thankful for the police officers and the police officers are doing their job and yet the same day they’re getting yelled at and getting called nasty names and it can confuse someone, like I’m chasing people over fences and grabbing guns and on the same day I might be standing on a line and being called some nasty names, that can definitely affect morale.
If you’re looking at the doxing. While police officers are standing on the line, they’re getting cell phones in their face with their family members on there I mean talk about demoralizing, that can really hurt someone and make them question, why are we doing this job? Why would I be a police officer right now? Not only am I risking my physical safety, but I’m risking the safety of my family and things like that. All about peaceful protesting. I’ve stood on I don’t know how many protest lines in my career, war protests, abortion protests that would last hours and hours and hours and we were willing to stand in line to keep everyone safe even though they were yelling at us, but it not only has to be peaceful, it also has to be lawful and that’s where some people are getting confused, what’s the difference between peaceful and lawful and that’s where some people can get confused with this whole controversy thing.
AC: What’s your response to those who say there’s systemic racism or just implicit bias with police departments…
TB: Yes. In society, right? So police departments are probably the most visible form of government, but I use the civil service exam process. I’ve been trying to diversify the sheriff’s office since I got here and we increased the number of people taking the test by 55%, minorities went up 55%, but even if 55% more people take the test, that still won’t allow me to higher any of those minorities if they don’t score high enough on some test that’s a random test coming out of Albany, right? It still doesn’t open up the door and that’s a structural thing that we can work on to give me a better choice of people I can bring into my organization.
When it comes to hiring, it’s all about me. I always say when it comes to hiring it’s all about me at the time. I’m the coach and I want the best bench possible. I want diversity. I want someone who can sign. I want somebody with a psychological degree, an IT degree, those are things we’re doing all the time, allow me to see those people and maybe grab those people, but that’s a structural thing that we could easily break down with this time that we’re given in Albany with legislation and change civil service law to allow us to hire, that’s just one example, but if you look at the systems, people talked about bail reform and bail was not fair because minorities were getting locked up because they didn’t have $150 for bail but some other kid from the suburbs at $150 and one sat in jail and one didn’t. I agree a thousand percent, that’s not right, that’s not the way the system is designed, the system shouldn’t be that, but with that we also need to keep in mind there should be a safety consideration there for someone that was just arrested for a violation, but we know he’s going to go back and kill his wife, he’s telling us in the back seat of the police car when I get out of here I’m going back.
You have to have a system to look at those things too so these are all structural things that if you live in a minority community, you grew up in this environment, you’re looking at this going this whole world is stacked against me and those are fair conversations, those are conversations we should have and tell me what you think, tell me what you believe, tell me why you believe that, I never thought of it that way, those are the conversations we should have and I think that’s the time we’ve been given right now to have those conversations.
AC: I know you don’t want to talk about the specifics of the Daniel Prude case. At the same time, when asked about it before, you talked about empathy…
TB: You look at all these cases and did they follow policy. We always want to argue, did they follow policy? Did they follow procedure? Was this a trained a trained technique? But when you look at that did they follow being a human being. The golden rule. I look at Mr. Floyd’s death and again policy, procedure, how about that’s a human being right there and we all know positional asphyxiation, we’ve been trained in this for years, we all know excited delirium, we’ve been trained in this for years so what is disconnecting here that someone isn’t walking up and tapping someone on the shoulder and saying OK, get him off the ground and roll up over on his side and get him on a gurney as soon as possible or sit him up in a seated position.
I look at that and I think we get callous, I think we get in the mode of being a police officer and we forget sometimes why we signed up for the job and that’s easy to do. This is a job that’s tough. They’re going to 911 call, 911 call, 911 call and it’s all negative, negative, negative and if we don’t take care of our troops and we don’t take care of ourselves mentally you can get callous in this job pretty easy. So we should definitely look at that case and every other case and say what are we doing for the officer so they don’t become callous, what are we doing for the sergeant who rolls on scene so he can go around and adjust the situation as he sees it then and make it a better situation for everybody, that’s what I’m looking for. If I can give my cops, my deputies anything, have a heart of gold, have compassion, don’t let this job get to you too much and it will, we’re humans.
AC: Chief Singletary, you and he had a very close relationship, of course you had to professionally, your decision in him deciding to retire?
TB: That absolutely is stunning. He is just a wonderful person. We can sit back, as leaders we make decisions, that’s what our job description is to do. We make decisions and they’re not always going to be perfect. But to question his integrity, but to call him anything but an honorable person, I would never even dream of doing that, he’s just a person. I was his class councilor 20 years ago in the academy. I taught him for 6 straight months in the academy, we knew what type of person he was then and then to have La’Ron next door. I’m a 55-year-old white male, I’ve been a cop for 30-some years.
He’s obviously younger, African-American, to bounce ideas off each other, not just tactical decisions or manpower deployment, but, Hey what do you think about this. Post-Floyd I don’t know how many times we talked after Floyd’s death and talked about what are we going to do, he has a perspective that I don’t have. I’m going to miss that like there’s no tomorrow. He was a great person and a great cop, but he was also a confidant, I could call upon and bounce things of him several times a week and vice a versa. He’s say what do you think about this? And that’s what good friends do for each other, but also good leaders phone a friend and get different perspective on something.
AC: COVID-19. It was a challenge for a jail. Any jail. Especially this one where you have more than the other counties. How has that process been now that we’ve gone past the six-month mark?
TB: I cannot be more impressed with my staff. Originally on the COVID world, we thought the world was coming to an end, we all started preparing for that, morgues were being set up, they were thinking about food distribution points and domestic violence going off the charts and we started doing all this stuff in law enforcement and one of the things that was very concerning because we had seen what was happening across the country is the jail population becoming overrun with COVID. And my staff went overboard, they went over the top, we were probably the first ones to shut off visitations which is a very difficult thing to do in a jail. It’s not good for the inmate and it’s not good for the family that has someone incarcerated.
We started doing the 14-day quarantines. Anyone booked into the jail will stay in a quarantine for 14 days, that’s very manpower intensive, to hold people in that isolation for 14 days, for their safety and everybody else’s. We started screening everybody before they came in the jail. And then when we do have a case inside the jail, whether it’s an inmate or anyone, the contact tracing we have gone so far above what the CDC recommends and what Monroe County recommends, the contact trace 14 days back, our definition of a contact is way more conservative if you will than anybody else’s. If you were even close to somebody that was positive, get them out of here. We can’t afford it. It’s 800 moving people inside those walls every day. 800. And people are coming and going every day and the potential for that virus to spread through that is huge so they’ve done an absolute stellar job and it’s not gone, we realize that, now is the time to maintain the protocols, maintain the culture we developed inside there, the inmates were incredible, the inmates were onboard keeping those inmates safe, they were helping us sanitize, they were asking for PPE, they were going around scrubbing 3 times a day, we’d scrub the whole place down. They didn’t want it either. That’s a testimony to everybody that said, we’re here, we’re stuck together, 800 of us every day, but we’ll take care of each other.