A new proposal from the Rochester City Council would create a new police accountability board that would have even more power than a previous proposal from the mayor, including the ability to render discipline.
Last month, Mayor Lovely Warren made headlines when she officially submitted legislation to create, for the first time, a police accountability board that would have the power to investigate and subpoena evidence and testimony for complaints made against officers.
Under the legislation, the board would be staffed by members suggested by the city leaders and an activist group.
The mayor said the board would have “unprecedented powers to investigate complaints” and the ability to make recommendations to the police chief on punishment. However, at the end of the day, the police chief would have the final say on discipline. Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott says that needs to change.
“We’re concerned with the aspect that it appears that sometimes the police are policing themselves,” Scott said. “Because of the way are system is structured, it’s hard for people to trust that.”
However, that isn’t the case in new legislation being submitted by city council leaders. Under the new legislation, the accountability board would also have the power to render punishment for an officer, using a predetermined matrix — that the board will create with the union and the chief. However, the chief would ultimately be the one to “mete out” the punishment, Scott says.
One question remains: Would that be legal?
In June, Scott revealed that the city had sought advisement on whether giving the power of discipline to an accountability board would allowed under state law. In its opinion, law firm Harris Beach ultimately felt the board would be able to legally punish officers.
However, in response, the city’s attorney, Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin, said that the opinion failed to consider the police union’s collective bargaining agreement, which only allows for the police chief to discipline officers. Curtin felt that giving a board this power would ultimately result in a legal challenge by the police union that the city would likely lose.
When questioned on the legality of their proposal, Scott cited the opinion from Harris Beach and a third opinion from the New York Civil Liberties Union. In a follow-up conversation, NYCLU Genesee Valley chapter director Iman Abid confirmed to News 8 that they had reviewed the legal questions over the board’s power and found that with a change to the city charter, moving the power of discipline away from the police chief, would prevent any issues with the collective bargaining agreement.
Scott acknowledged that changes would need to be made to the city charter before the legislation could take effect.
Without specifically referencing the council’s bill, Mayor Lovely Warren released the following statement Monday that put a focus on the law: “The City Administration’s proposal will create a Police Accountability Board that is legally permissible under the laws of the State of New York. As proposed by the Administration, the Police Accountability Board would have unprecedented authority – including subpoena power to compel testimony and the production of evidence – to investigate complaints as well as work toward better policies related to the use of force. I am looking forward to working with City Council and community stakeholders to develop a legally permissible Police Accountability Board that will enhance public safety by improving the public’s trust and creating a fully transparent investigative process that’s fair to both the community and the officers.”
In a statement on Monday, the NYCLU lauded the proposal from city council, while comparing Mayor Warren’s proposal to the model of New York City’s police accountability board — where they say the police chief often rejects recommendations by the NYC accountability board.
“There is no such thing as full accountability when the police can police themselves. There have been several cases around the city where police used excessive force and the public was left in the dark,” said Abid. “The PAB would help ensure that policing in Rochester is more transparent, hold police accountable for misconduct, and start to rebuild the trust between the community and the police department.”
Scott said they will hold forums to give the public the chance to weigh in on the legislation. Dates for those meetings haven’t been released, but Scott says there will be three meetings: one on the west and east sides of the city and one in downtown Rochester.