It wasn’t all that long ago there was real question over how the Rochester Police Department would move past the departure of its chief, La’Ron Singletary, and the emptying out of the department’s command staff.
That was the void Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan ventured into when she accepted a one-year term as RPD’s new police chief.
Having retired as a lieutenant, she hadn’t worn the badge for more than a decade.
Now, she’s tasked with picking up the pieces left behind by this fateful fall, defined by the revelation of Daniel Prude’s death, subsequent protests and the exit of Singletary.
This week, Adam Chodak sat down with Herriott-Sullivan to talk about her past, her plan and her take on some of the issues surrounding police-community relations.
Adam Chodak: How did you get into policing?
Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan: I had done an internship with the police department, Teens on Patrol, I still have the picture of my group and he called me up and said I remembered you from Teens on Patrol program and have you thought about it and I think you might be good at it, so I did.
AC: What did it mean to you to rise the way you did in the department?
CHS: It’s interesting because you have a few different variables here and it’s not just law enforcement, it can be difficult at times because there’s so much you have to do get through the process and there’s a standard that you have to hold yourself to and then there’s the woman and the male-dominated field so I was kind of looking at different role models and other examples, but there was a police lieutenant who had been promoted in 1959 and she was the first and only Black woman, Kathryn Hawkins, so that was my role model, a major one because as difficult as it was at times I thought if she could do this in 1959, I think I can hang in there. But I had different role models, white men, women because everybody brought different things to the table, they had different skills, things they were good at. Bob Craig, who I recently heard from when I was promoted to chief, he was deputy chief when I came here, but really smart man, very personable and he, I think, played a major role building my confidence, giving me the skills that I needed… He said, you’ve got to stay away from the people that are going to talk you down and tell you how bad things are and then you’ve got ones that are going to be positive and give you a much better attitude about the work you’re doing, those are the ones you want to spend time with, not the naysayers and I said, wow that doesn’t seem that hard to do and he was right, but I’d say that had the biggest influence on building my confidence, is just not letting the negativity, I just didn’t give them an audience. I just worked with the people who encouraged me, people who would try to tear me down either because I was a woman or a woman of color or both, I just stayed away from them. And it did a lot to really encourage me to do this job and I don’t think I ever looked back from that.
AC: It’s probably good advice for any job that you go into…
CHS: Oh, definitely. I took that wherever I went, but if someone was going to give me constructive feedback, I would seek them out, that I was open to, but somebody who wanted to criticize me just because of the day it was or maybe they were having a bad day, I would not listen to folks like that.
AC: Did you have those types of experiences because you were a Black woman?
CHS: I did. I did. But I had more positives than the negatives and I think that’s what I take with me the most is, like I said, across the board men, other women, because there other women who might be negative or try to tear me down as well, I think once I just took people as they presented themselves and didn’t worry about what race or gender they were, but did they bring something positive to the table and were they willing to work with me some mentoring and feedback, that’s the criteria for me and that was across the board from all types.
AC: You had a leadership role in a group that promoted the hiring and training of minority candidates in the police department. What success did you find and at the same time, when you look at the numbers, I think it’s in the teens right now in RPD, where do you think it fell short or what areas of growth do you think still exist?
CHS: Realistically, recruitment all over is difficult for law enforcement because there are a lot of regulations, there’s a process you’ve got to go through for character, your background and once you go through it, you’ve got to go through the academy, which is a lot of work as well so. Department of Homeland Security, there was a state and local training committee that I sat on for NOBLE so I got an earful about the challenges of recruiting from around the country so it wasn’t just us, but what I found was that one of the best things I brought to the table was I just made sure people got a fair shot and you’ve still got to pass standards, but you get a fair shot, you don’t get a pass, but you get a shot and I think that that’s a big value I brought because then people can leave with a sense like, OK, that didn’t work out for me but they don’t feel like maybe it wasn’t a fair process so that’s something that I’ll push for because you’ve got to get a fair shot. For example, there was one woman recruit who was in the academy who wasn’t doing well with physical agility so I met with her and we talked for a bit and she was discouraged because it’s tough, but then I also connected her with a woman who was very good at the physical agility part, what she went through and she would come on her own time and meet with her and run around the track and encourage her to up her game until she was able to make it so those are the things I think are helpful. Sometimes you can feel isolated and sometimes there are clicks and we don’t always get to feel part of the team at times so I think by doing that, we make up for that.
AC: What are some of the biggest challenges when it comes to recruiting minorities to a police department?
CHS: I think there are a few. There are trust issues, you’re competing with other professions, do I want to take this job where I can make the same or more without the challenges that come with being a person of color in uniform, sometimes it’s a challenge to pass that background or screening process, there are just so many steps at times, but it’s also why you want someone that it’s a calling for, not just, oh you can make this much, that’s for me because it’s so much more than that, it really is, but it’s not an easy process period, but it’s already competitive with other areas and sometimes the process, how long it takes, the interviews, screenings, psychological eval, the physical agility, the written exam, you’ve got to go through all that stuff and in the end, you’re interviewed by the command staff so it’s just a long process and like I said, when you’re competing against other professions, other companies then I think it just adds to it.
AC: What convinced you to take this role at this time?
CHS: Sometimes I still ask myself… It was not on my radar to become a chief right now. I watched the department and I still have a lot of good friends here and a lot of good people that work hard and don’t necessarily make the news but are outstanding people so I was always involved in criminal justice reform, eliminating disparity in the justice process so things were really on my radar anyway so I had gotten an initial request from the mayor that I think about it, but I liked where I was and wasn’t looking to move. A few weeks later she asked me again and said I need you to do this and I don’t know, maybe it was something different in her voice so I told her I would think about it and I talked to my husband and I talked to my pastor and nobody said I don’t think you should do that and that struck me. But here’s the thing, a friend of mine who works in public relations, and I was talking to her about it and she said, you’re not someone who is aspiring to get in that role so you can flex your muscles and be in charge. She said I think you’re exactly the kind of person that needs to go there and so I’m hearing all these different perspectives and from my pastor he said when he first heard about some of the critical incidents recently that were coming about he said his thought process was I needed to go back there and go help out so I like to think that I’m someone that likes to gives deep thought and consideration to decisions and I didn’t want to, but I didn’t feel right not doing, if that makes sense. I felt like I had a voice to bring to the table and still feel that way, but had they found somebody else I would not have been hurt about it, but I felt a duty and responsibility is what it boiled down to.
AC: Would you ever entertain taking on a permanent position?
CHS: I would. I don’t like to say no, but I committed for a year and I definitely intend to do that and I intend to leave it in a better place than when I came, that’s my commitment, but I definitely would consider that, yes.
AC: What steps are you taking to leave the department in a better place?
CHS: I can’t tell you all my strategies, but I believe in succession and my ego is not involved where I can’t bring someone in who’s as good as I am and first of all looking at that second-in-command choice as executive deputy chief, Andre Anderson, he’s smart, very smart, I’ve known him for a bit, ethical and I believe once he gets up to speed and God forbid I broke my leg or something, he’s got it covered. And I’ve got a group of people around as far as people we put in place, deputy chiefs that report to him and the commanders are people who have been around a bit and I have to give them kudos because some of them were on their way out the door but stayed because I asked them to so I just want them to know how much I appreciate that, but I’ve said all along that I’m looking for competency, commitment and ethics and you put those things in place, you put those people in place and those things trickle down, that sends a message to the organization that this is how we’re going to be moving forward so if or when I move on you’ve got some great folks in place and then we’ve got a process in place that’s picking the leaders as they come along because so things are a consideration – competency, commitment, ethics – those are the things that get you promoted in a department and it’s not just promoted to rank, but leadership responsibility so if there’s a key committee or project that somebody’s needed for, those are the folks that are going to get picked for that because if we think about it, if we go out and do a good job and you do it the best way you can, I don’t expect that there won’t be any mistakes because I’ve made them, but do you learn from them, do you come out of it a better person, those are the people I want representing the department, to represent me if that’s the case, but I want to send a message to the officers, to the entire department that if you do those things then guess what, we’re going to pay attention and you’re going to get rewarded for that and when you do it puts you in a position that you’re on a path to leadership in different ways because those are important, experiences, you get to know people, you see how meetings are run, you want to be efficient, if you say I’m going to do something, that’s an action item, I’ll follow up on that, that’s training people, that’s putting people in readiness for leadership, but I want to send a message that when you do a good job, you’re going to get rewarded for it and if you have a history that you don’t quite know how to treat people then you won’t get rewarded for that.
AC: That must have been difficult for you when you first came in, some of the command staff had voluntarily taken a demotion, others have retired. You kind of came in with a void…
CHS: Yeah, it was a big one. There was a lot going on, a lot of tension, a lot of hurt feelings and it’s difficult, but I think it helped, like I said, some of those folks I know and they knew me and to the best extent I could, if I tell them I’m going to do something then that’s what I’m going to do and if I can’t then I’m not going to promise it and I think at a time like that, that mattered so I think it helped to calm things down and like I said, I just was honest with them, I need your help and we’ve got to get the department on track. We can’t get out there and help the public if I don’t have a fully functioning police department, a whole department, things like worrying about your status and where you’re going to be, I need to be able to take that off the table so you can go out and do what you need to do and not worry about that and that we’re all in this together, so far so good.
AC: What was it like when you saw the Prude video given your broad experience in the community?
CHS: The difficult part there is, it’s tough all around. It’s hard I would imagine for Mr. Prude’s family, it’s hard for anybody watching that, but I also know and knew that you have to look at what happened, what’s policy and procedure and law and you put them all together and say, OK, what do I have? That was a tough part for me at times is that in the past I would I hear what was being said, but I would know all the details and I know sometimes the optics are tough to try to manage, but it’s important to really look at all the information and then come to an assessment about what you’re dealing with and what you need to do moving forward.
AC: Have you done that in this particular case, made an assessment?
CHS: No, not in the sense that I think maybe you’re asking because what I’m trying to do is let the attorney general do their job and me not put myself in the middle of that because my priority was the police department. I can’t help the public if I don’t get things on track and people are focused on being able to get their work done, that’s important and that had to come first.
AC: The Police Accountability Board. Do you think it would be helpful in any way to have a citizens board that has powers to discipline officers?
CHS: I’m not quite sure yet if I’m in a position to tell you fully my thoughts on that. I will tell you I met with the newly installed executive director and the board chair and I was impressed with their perspective and attitude. For example, the board chair, she talked a lot about, and that’s her background, officer wellness and she gets that it’s a whole package, that that part is important, if we want 100% from our folks then they’ve got to be able to hit the ground running, they’ve got to deal with their issues of stress, things like, maybe a lot of the protest, there was a lot of overtime, you’ve got people who are tired, who are working day after day after day without a day off, 10-, 12-hour shifts, that’s going to have an impact and she gets that so I was very impressed with that. So I’m kind of getting up to speed on that. The PAB I know the goal here, some things have happened, there are trust issues I get that, but I’m not going to say I have a concern yet when I haven’t seen that, I’m going to wait and see how things go, but at the end of the day, whatever the process is my goal is to make it work as smoothly as possible and make sure that I’m an advocate for the people and also the officers so we can get things done.
AC: How is morale within the department right now?
CHS: We’re coming along, it’s getting there, one of the biggest ways I could impact that was to get stable leadership in place and so I think that helped and then the plan is next. I want to hear from officers directly, I want to hear from their voices on what concerns they’ve gotten or they have so my assistant had literally put a schedule together, the different roll call times and who to go and talk to, but then this new COVID spike put us back into a different process where we have to change our roll call process to be able to address that. So now I’m back at the drawing board to figure out how I’m going to do that and make it all work, but I’m going to get out there because I want to hear it from them directly.
AC: The protesters who were out, what I gathered from them, when they say “Defund the Police” a lot of them mean taking a certain portion of the budget, moving it over to mental health response or folks who trained specifically for those types of calls. What’s your take on that particular interpretation of that slogan?
CHS: I don’t like the defund the police term. I understand that people have their different reasons for using it, but what I don’t like having been out there and working on different programs where you have to get your message across quickly defund doesn’t go there for me so then the next question is, what does that mean? And how would take funds away? And what would you shift? And I would also wonder because in my time here before I retired, I remember working here and some of those programs would be cut and then you had law enforcement that was the default to respond to those without an increase in budget. I would challenge that defunding probably took place years ago in the 90s when you were making those changes, you would take those programs away and I can’t speak for everybody, but I hated to see them go because those were incidents that those services would respond to, you may even get there as an officer and have to call them, but then you could go and they’d take care of it. I mean, who would have a problem with that? That’s a good thing, not bad, but I remember seeing those things get cut and those responsibilities fell on law enforcement, but there was no increase to try and deal with that so I’m not sure where you would figure out, you know, fund or defund. I like the idea of those services happening and being done, but that’s something I’m in the middle of, taking a closer look at, like I want to look at our calls for service, calls for officers, for our city, is it comparable? How are we keeping up with the workload? I’m just not in a position where I’m comfortable saying that that’s something that’s under our budget that I would support or agree with, but I’m literally in the middle of taking a look at that.
AC: Anything else chief that I might have missed?
CHS: Pray for us, it’s a tough time for this city and by that I mean pray for the entire city. We’re going to be OK, we are, but it’s going to take some time and it’s going to take some work, but I know that by doing this together, if we’re willing to come to the table and have discussions about it, I think we’ll be OK. For example, we have some of the protesters out there, you have some protesters who are out there and want to see change and you’ve got some that are willing to commit violence, I’ve watched the videos, I don’t think that’s an answer either, but we’ve got to get to a point where we’re going to be able to sit across the table from each other and talk about what it is you need, what we can we provide and how we can work through that together and I don’t know a shortcut for that, I really don’t.