Right out of the gate, Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary faces a number of challenges, including the need to convince black and Hispanic city residents that the police can be trusted to treat them fairly.
“My job is to go out there and build that trust and legitimacy,” says Singletary, who became chief on June 18.
As Singletary takes on that challenge, the 39-year-old also faces concerns about RPD’s use of body-worn cameras and a threat to his ability to make disciplinary decisions.
Trust in the Rochester Police Department is in short supply in some city neighborhoods, and the recent case of RPD officer Michael Sippel doesn’t help. Last year, Sippel and his partner, Spenser McAvoy, arrested black city resident Christopher Pate, an action that hinged on their misidentification of Pate. The confrontation turned violent, Pate suffered a broken bone in his face and other injuries, and he was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. Those charges have been dropped.
In June, Sippel was convicted of misdemeanor assault as a result of his actions and fired. Pate has lodged a civil suit against RPD, Sippel, McAvoy and others on the police force.
“The judge rendered a verdict based on the law and the facts presented throughout the case,” Singletary says. “I am limited as to what I can say, as there may or may not be an appeal with respect to the criminal procedure portion.”
Singletary also asserted that the case should not tinge the public’s view of RPD, or affect how his officers do their jobs.
“The circumstances surrounding the Sippel case in no way, shape, or form should be a reflection on the hardworking men and women of the Rochester Police Department,” he says. “The expectation that I have for the men and women of the Rochester Police Department is to serve this community with honor and dignity.”
Despite that view, Sippel’s case could be of particular importance to Rochester residents who live in what is sometimes called the “Crescent of Poverty.” This area includes part or all of Lyell, Joseph, Jefferson, Plymouth and North Clinton avenues, and East Main, Genesee and North Goodman streets.
“Within the Crescent, we tend to have extreme poverty, we have a higher concentration of minorities, we have a higher concentration of crime,” says Alex White, community activist and former Green Party candidate for Rochester mayor.
White is a member of a number of citizens groups, including the Community Justice Advisory Board and the Police Accountability Board Alliance, which focus on criminal justice issues. His activities have given him an opportunity to hear different views of the police.
“Outside the Crescent, the biggest complaint is, ‘We don’t have enough coverage, we need more policing,’” White says. “Inside the Crescent, the comment is more about police brutality, and ‘you can’t trust these guys.’”
Rise Up Rochester Inc. is a small nonprofit that seeks to empower the community it serves, support crime victims and help create a culture of nonviolence. Executive Director Wanda Ridgeway, who lives in the Crescent’s eastern horn, has observed how some RPD officers treat those in her neighborhood.
“I know there are some cops who harass people,” she says. “I’ve watched my own son be harassed by cops.”
Such behavior has led some community members to take a dim view of the police.
“They don’t trust the police officers,” Ridgeway explains. “They say the only time the officers come to them (is) if they want to arrest them. Or, if they’re pulling them over.”
In some cases, misbehavior on the job has led the department to take measures against officers. RPD’s Professional Standards Section investigated 53 complaints against officers in 2018, of which five ended in some form of disciplinary action. Altogether, officers responded to 319,550 calls that year.
From the community
Singletary describes himself as “chief for everyone,” but recognizes the concerns of Rochester’s minority groups.
“As an African-American chief … who understands the history of policing to certain populations in this country, I think I know what these populations have (gone) through,” he says.
When Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren named Singletary chief, she emphasized the importance of building bridges to all parts of the community.
“As our most recent crime statistics have demonstrated, community engagement saves lives,” Warren said. “La’Ron’s expertise in this arena will be critically important as we continue our efforts to strengthen the partnerships between the community and the RPD.”
Singletary was born and raised in the city. While attending John Marshall High School, he joined, and came to lead, Rochester Police Explorer Post 655. Police Explorers are young men or women ages 14 to 21 who are interested in law enforcement, are of good character and maintain at least a “C” average in school.
Robert Duffy, who was Rochester police chief before serving as mayor and lieutenant governor, says he noticed Singletary’s potential immediately.
“The first time I met him, and watched him lead the Explorers, I said to him, ‘La’Ron, someday you’re going to be chief,’” says Duffy, who now is president and CEO of the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce.
Singletary joined RPD in 2000; Duffy swore him in. Over the next 19 years, he held a number of supervisory positions as he advanced through the department’s ranks. Along the way, he made himself known around the community.
“Growing up in the department, growing up in the community, a lot of people know me,” Singletary says. “It’s about relationships.”
He’s taking a hands-on approach to maintaining those relationships—and building more.
“I walk the neighborhoods. I’m accessible to the cops. I’m accessible to the community. I’m on social media,” he explains. “I think you have to be.”
Singletary also plans to capitalize on one of the department’s strengths: the collaborative relationships it has developed with grassroots groups, including the ROC Against Gun Violence Coalition, ROC the Peace and Rise Up Rochester.
Ridgeway watched Singletary engage in that kind of collaboration while the two were participating in the Think About It Safe Summer Initiative. This year, members of anti-violence organizations, RPD officers and their supervisor walked Rochester’s streets together during selected July and August evenings. The effort was intended, in part, to help neighborhood residents feel more comfortable with contacting the police and foster positive interactions with the officers.
“We want you to get out and know your neighbors, instead of just running up and tasing, always pulling your gun out,” Ridgeway says.
City residents responded positively to the initiative, she says.
“The response we got from people is, ‘We would really like to see more of this,’” Ridgeway says. “We’d rather see you guys walking with us on the street, rather than always just coming to arrest us.”
The department also engages in community outreach as part of its community policing efforts.
“Community policing (is) having officers policing a specific area in order to become familiar with community members,” says Deputy Chief Mark Mura, who heads RPD’sCommunity Affairs Bureau. “It also enables the community to become familiar with the officers.”
As part of this new way of policing, officers from the Community Affairs Bureau have hosted cookouts and social functions, helped out with the Special Olympics, attended block parties and school events in their areas, and even read to kids in their schools. Though Mura could not immediately provide statistics on the program’s success, he believes it is affecting the way some city residents view the department.
“I’ve noticed an increase in community members coming forward to praise the work of officers that work in their particular portion of the city,” he says.
It is hoped that over the long term, community policing will foster better community-police communications.
“A dialogue must be allowed to occur not (only) in times of crisis, but in times where no crisis is brewing,” Singletary believes.
He also wants the public to be better informed about incidents to which RPD responds. Right now, police headquarters provides much of that information.
“We’re trying to be more transparent, trying to be more out there in the community with regard to when situations occur, getting our mid-level supervisors more comfortable to talk to the media,” Singletary notes.
The change could give RPD more control of the information reaching the community.
“If we tell the story, we don’t allow the narrative to be skewed out there in the street,” Singletary explains. “We tell it firsthand.”
In addition, Singletary and his supervisors observe how officers are doing on the street, and through their evaluations.
“One of the things that we’re looking at doing is trying to get better feedback in regard to the evaluations that we do departmentwide,” Singletary explains. “It should also be dual feedback, where the officer can kind of tell the organization what we need to improve.”
As Singletary seeks to improve RPD, other issues grab his attention. CJAB is pushing for changes to his department’s use of body-worn cameras.
RPD began issuing BWCs to officers who regularly interact with the public in 2016. By last February, 481 people in the department, from officers to lieutenants, wore the devices on their chests. According to Singletary, all must activate the cameras any time they are about to take what he calls “law enforcement action.” The department and the officers can then use the videos.
“Our policy is that we do allow our officers to look at the video prior to putting pen to paper,” Singletary says.
Citizens wanting to access the videos must apply to do so via a Freedom of Information Law request.
CJAB was created specifically to keep an eye on the BWC program.
“Our specific task is to monitor and make changes to body cameras to make sure that we’re getting the most we can out of it,” White explains.
The footage has proved somewhat useful so far. In a 2018 report, CJAB stated that BWC video footage appears to be “significantly helpful” in the examination of civilians’ complaints against RPD officers. According to the report, about 20 percent of the allegations against police from 2014 to 2016 were sustained. By the end of the third quarter of 2018, that had risen to about 50 percent.
At the same time, CJAB called for a number of changes to the BWC program. For example, in light of research indicating that viewing video footage can change officers’ recollections of events, the report stated that RPD officers shouldfile an initial written report before they view the footage.
Singletary does not agree with CJAB’s contention that viewing BWC footage about an incident could affect the contents of an officer’s report about the matter.
“There’s evidence that supports the data on both sides,” he says, adding that RPD officers are allowed only to review their video footage.
“The officer can’t alter it, the officer can’t amend it, the officer can’t modify it,” Singletary says.
Currently, civilian complaints against police are investigated by RPD’s Professional Standards Section, sometimes called internal affairs. In cases where the officer is alleged to have used excessive force or committed a crime, the department’s Civilian Review Board, which consists of three people not employed by RPD, also reviews the complaint. The police chief reviews all investigations, and has the final say about disciplinary action.
CJAB, PABA and other local groups want to change that system.
“Recording the evidence of police action is of no value if there is no accountability for (police officers’) actions,” White says. “We needed an outside body that could actually do what needs to be done.”
PABA convinced City Council to put a referendum on the November ballot that, if passed, would drastically change the way RPD deals with civilian complaints. The proposal would create a Police Accountability Board with nine city residents. The board would be able to independently investigate civilian complaints, have subpoena power, and decide whether police have engaged in misconduct. If an officer is found to have committed misconduct, the police chief would be required to take disciplinary action.
Singletary says he supports oversight of his department, as long as “it’s fair for the officers, it’s fair for the community.”
He does not agree with the idea of putting disciplinary decisions in the hands of the PAB.
“The final disposition of an internal affairs case should lie with the chief of police,” Singletary says. “If you want me to change the culture within an organization, I need to be able to do that.”
As he tries to build and maintain trust between his department and Rochester neighborhoods, Singletary might need to bear in mind how fragile that trust can be.
“You could spend years building it, and it can be broken at 3 o’clock in the morning on a street when a decision is made or a situation occurs,” Duffy says. “That’s the eternal challenge.”
Mike Costanza is a Rochester-area freelance writer.