Rochester police sued in federal civil rights lawsuit, claims of excessive force, racist practices

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Local activist group Free the People ROC, The National Lawyers Guild Rochester chapter, and 10 individuals have filed a lawsuit against the City of Rochester, Rochester Police Department leadership, and more Monday with claims of excessive force and historically racist practices.

“In the year since RPD officers killed Daniel Prude, an unarmed Black man in the midst of a mental health crisis, the Department has deployed violent, unjustified force in response to peaceful protests to end police brutality; and RPD officers have handcuffed and pepper sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl and fatally shot another Black man having a mental health crisis,” a statement from attorneys said Monday.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, aims to “end the [Rochester Police] Department’s years-long, unchecked practice of using unconstitutional excessive force disproportionately against people of color.”

According to the plaintiffs, the 96-page complaint outlines excessive unnecessary use of force on people of color in Rochester. According to the lawsuit, a five-year analysis of Rochester police data found that officers’ use of force was overwhelmingly against people of color: 66.8% against Black people and 11.5% against Hispanic people.

The lawsuit calls for the appointment of “an independent monitor to reform the City of Rochester’s policies and practices with regard to the use of force, racially-biased policing, and policing demonstrations.”

A statement Monday morning from the attorneys who field the lawsuit said in part: “The lawsuit details over 50 incidents of excessive force and racist ideology within the Department. What appears is a pattern of unconstitutional policing that has been allowed to fester while City and RPD officials remain deliberately indifferent. RPD officers who use excessive force against the people of Rochester face little or no punishment—instead they are often promoted and commended. Officers who have used racial slurs and even officers with admitted ties to groups that espouse white supremacist ideology face little or no consequence.”

There are more than a dozen defendants named in the lawsuit, including:

  • Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren
  • Former Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary
  • Interim Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan
  • Henry Favor, RPD Commander of the Special Operations Division
  • Ralph Montinarelli, RPD Lieutenant with the Tactical Unit
  • Samuel Lucyshyn, RPD Lieutenant
  • Randy Potuck, RPD Sgt. assigned to the Mobile Field Force
  • RPD officers William Baker, Alexander Elmore, Domenic Borrelli, Matthew Drake, Dakota Vanbrederode, Ethan Paszko, and John Clinkhammer.
  • The Rochester Police Department
  • City of Rochester
  • County of Monroe
  • Monroe County Executive Adam Bello
  • Monroe County Sheriff Todd Baxter
  • Monroe County Sheriff’s Office
  • Stephen Dellasala, New York State Trooper
  • New York State Police

According to the lawsuit, “plaintiffs demand a trial by jury on each and every claim to which they are legally entitled to a jury.”

“The RPD uses excessive force during routine interactions with citizens in Rochester every day,” said plaintiff Anthony Hall in a press release. “Their instant reaction is to escalate the situation and use force. If you don’t do exactly what they want, they’ll throw you on the ground and pepper-spray you, that’s what they did to the nine-year-old girl and that’s what they did to the mother and her three-year-old.”

When details of Prude’s death first became public in September, it sparked a month long series of protests in the city, often featuring violent clashes between demonstrators and police. In January of this year, Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan announced new protest response policies.

Those clashes occurred before Chief Herriott-Sullivan was sworn into the role as interim chief in October.

Several plaintiffs in the lawsuit held a virtual press conference Monday afternoon to discuss their experiences with Rochester police and why they took the legal action.

“Police have targeted legal observers with pepper balls, tear gas, and false arrests at protests — pointing us out before taking aim to interfere with our ability to document their human rights abuses and unlawful actions against protestors, journalists, street medics and fellow legal observers,” said Emily Good, National Legal Guild Rochester chapter legal observer. “This state violence is business as usual for police who have, for decades, violated the human rights of our communities.”

“To be blunt, what I’ve witnesses have been nothing short of object terror, carnage and unwarranted brutalization,” said Rochester photojournalist Reynaldo DeGuzman. “In no way am I exaggerating when I label how RPD, MCSO and state troopers have conducted themselves as rampantly belligerent and, on multiple occasions,, vengeful. After capturing a violent arrest of a young black woman who was screaming I can’t breath as one of the five arresting officers held his knee on her upper spine, I was walking away to do a battery change when an officer yelled ‘media badges,’ and shot me in the base of my neck, the pepper ball split my neck open. My colleges from national news outlets who have captured protests in Portland, New York City, Kenosha, and Minnesota have told me this department’s response was by far the most grossly disproportionate to the lack of aggression shown by protestors. The response I observed and captured on my camera from a department that should have been on their hands and knees begging for forgiveness from the people their sworn to protest was instead unmitigated aggression.”

“I am a mother, a two-time combat veteran, a product and citizen of Rochester, New York,” said Devorah Chatman, Rochester resident and military veteran. Who do we call for help when the RPD, like a lot of others in the county, is filled with racist cops who see our skin color as a weapon or a criminal act? Who do we look to for justice when the system of justice overlooks these modern day lynchings? As a veteran I can relate to these officers in having signed up for possibly risking life or limb in service, but one thing I cant relate to is the lack of training they have — especially in neighborhoods that they don’t reside in nor relate to.”

City of Rochester Communication Director Justin Roj released a statement Monday afternoon in response to the lawsuit:

“Mayor Warren welcomes a review by the United States Department of Justice. In fact, in September of last year, Mayor Warren formally called upon them to conduct a thorough investigation of the Rochester Police Department and to offer reforms to address any and all civil rights violations that might be found.

Everyone wants a Rochester that encompasses safer more vibrant neighborhoods, more jobs and greater educational opportunities; and promoting a police department that works with its citizens leads to that goal.

In addition, the City’s recently adopted Executive Order 203 response to reform and reinvent policing in Rochester includes meaningful reforms including: the ability for the Mayor to fire officers for cause, revising the federal consent order that effectively caps the number of minority officers at 25%, requiring newly hired officers to live in the city and numerous other changes to limit the use of force by officers. Mayor Warren is dedicated to implementing these reforms building upon her record of ensuring that all officers wear and use body-worn cameras, eliminating red light cameras and creating Rochester’s Person In Crisis teams.

Also, under Chief Herriott-Sullivan, at Mayor Warren’s direction, RPD has adopted a revised protest response plan to ensure a proportional and just response to community actions.”

Full press conference:

Full lawsuit:

This is a developing story. News 8 WROC will provide updates as they become available.

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