Michael Mazzeo acknowledges the need to embrace change in policing. However, the president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union for the city’s police force, stresses that public safety must be reviewed along with other societal challenges that can’t be solved overnight.
Police departments across the nation have come under intense scrutiny since George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, died May 25 in Minneapolis while in custody. In Rochester, local Black Lives Matter supporters have called for defunding police departments. A week ago, City Council approved a new spending plan that contains a nearly 4 percent cut to the RPD’s $95 million budget and removes police officers from the Rochester City School District.
Mazzeo contends the pervasive belief that communities of color have been targets of police brutality reflects anecdotal reporting of information that often is not reflective of the actual data. However, he adds, “‘a prevalent belief’ is of equal importance … and most effectively addressed by confronting the problem as if it were data-driven.”
The Rochester Beacon posed a few questions to Mazzeo to obtain his views on systemic racism, growing distrust of the police force, and reforms including repeal of state law 50-a, which allowed law enforcement officers to refuse disclosure of personnel records used to evaluate performance. His responses are below.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you believe that some amount of systemic racism currently exists within the Rochester Police Department or its practices?
MICHAEL MAZZEO: I believe that there is some level of systemic racism which currently exists within the RPD. I also believe that there is systemic racism existing in every institution that exists in this country. If we do not believe that racism exists in every organization from police departments to institutions of higher learning, then it is because we choose not to believe it. I think the most important answer you must determine is if the level of racism is due to inherent biases or the result of internal practices that may have been in place for a significant time.
To look at the issue specifically in an organization you must look judiciously at possible reasons for the origins of perceived racist practices. You have to determine or differentiate if the problem lies with individuals within the organization that are racist due to personal beliefs outside of the organization, or if it is the result of a practice that resulted in systemic inherent racism to develop.
I think police organizations are unique in one way because theories on effective police enforcement tend to foster a level of unconsciousness which perhaps can better be defined as a “unconscious learned bias.” For example, directed police services are targeted to areas that are experiencing higher levels of crime. (The) ability to effectively reduce the level of crime determines the amount and duration of police resources that will be placed in any given area. Directives and orders from police command are usually heavily influenced by outside political pressures, which, depending on the level of influence, will determine the level of assertive police action that will be initiated. These enforcement actions, which are often referenced in different police nuances, no matter what label is given, they are simply stepped-up proactive patrols.
In some eyes it is seen as aggressive over-policing and racist in nature due to the demographics of the area that is being addressed. However, for those who are tasked, instructed, and trained in established police practices, to reach a particular outcome, it is purely seen as proactive measures addressing a specific need. In either way of looking at it, it is not difficult to see how it could not be anything else than what you perceive it to be.
It could easily be theorized that the more effective the proactive measures are, the more likely the practice would become more common, established, and eventually becoming a norm in police practice or policy. Just as likely, the actions or practice would be recognized by those caught up in the middle of these proactive initiatives as being more aggressive, intrusive, and biased in nature.
Contributing factors like positive reinforcements such as accolades, financial incentives (overtime) or promotions to individuals who have success in aggressive proactive assignments would explain how systemic practices take hold and become established. It would also explain why some actions that are viewed as racist in nature on the one hand (are) truly seen as something entirely different on the other hand.
The consistent way police officers are trained and directed to enforce public safety is predominately more likely the reason that there is such a large outcry to paint all police officers with the same brush as being racist. It would also explain why police officers are adamant that they are not biased or racist in their work.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What do you think accounts for the belief of local Black Lives Matter activists and others that there is pervasive police brutality against minorities in Rochester?
MAZZEO: The premise that there is a belief of a pervading conduct of police brutality targeting people of color in Rochester can be traced primarily to parallel but at times divergent sources which has proliferated substantially through anecdotal reporting of information which often is not reflective of the actual data. In my opinion, “a prevalent belief” is of equal importance, concern, and most effectively addressed by confronting the problem as if it were data-driven.
The concerted public campaign of the Police Accountability Board Alliance in making their case for their proposed legislation for a Police Accountability Board contributed to expanding the belief that substantial problems exist within the RPD, regardless if you agree or disagree with the legislation. Certainly, incidents of police misconduct occurring around the country contribute to the growing trend of public distrust in police in general, and most likely have an equalizing effect as if the incident had occurred here in Rochester.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Besides the repeal of state law 50-a, what other state or local reforms do you think would help to improve police-community relations in our area?
MAZZEO: It has been my opinion for some time that reform was needed on CVR § law 50-a. I also believe that the repealing of 50a will not have the dramatic results on improving police-community relations that some have laid claim to. The existence of other civil service laws already in effect in New York supported by data shows that the ability for a terminated officer to win an appeal in getting their job is a rarity, along with the ability to obtain another police position as well. In either side of the argument it is difficult to argue the value of keeping or repealing 50-a since in 27 states currently police disciplinary records are public documents. Those states are not any more immune from any of the problems that we are dealing with here under 50-a.
Most of the other reforms that have been addressed either statewide or nationally are already in effect here in Rochester. What I believe, if you can call it a reform, is to change the way we address incidents of public concern and that is to immediately address the matter publicly. We can no longer accept a police chief or a mayor saying nothing more than that there will be a thorough investigation. The voice for change has been loud and clear across the country. We must do things differently and better. We expect a chief of police to be an expert and a leader in his field, (so) the chief must accept that he has a responsibility to form an opinion on what may have occurred and speak to it. The public will tend to be more accepting of explanations that are provided when there is extensive transparency. This would include showing body-worn cameras when there is clear video and what is being viewed shows highlights to specific events of an incident. There will be times when the ability to show a video may be hampered by other factors and that would have to be clearly articulated. In any investigation information may come forward that may change the course of the investigation either exonerating or holding someone accountable. Why fear that? What we are doing now does not work and has in my opinion got us to the level of distrust that exists in this country. We must embrace change and that means on all levels.
ROCHESTER BEACON: How will the growing anti-police sentiment and calls to “defund the police” likely affect the long-term morale and effectiveness of RPD and other local law enforcement?
MAZZEO: The whole environment of public safety must be reviewed along with numerous societal changes, some of which are being identified but with no sustainable solutions because they are not simple problems that can be solved overnight.
We cannot do away with the police, despite what some may suggest. We also cannot make a profession better by demoralizing and demeaning it. While we seek to make every police officer and department better, we should also recognize that criticisms must be specific and accurate; in Rochester predominantly by data-driven numbers we have been successful. The RPD averages 300,000 calls for service annually with only a yearly average of 18 citizen complaints.
The belief that the answer to changing systemic racism in law enforcement is to hold police officers at the lowest levels of authority more accountable through unfair discipline is aggravating the discourse between the police and those they serve, and not addressing the real problem.
Those police officers have no say in determining the amount of resources that are assigned to any area, nor do they have the ability to decide how much time they spend just responding to calls for service versus initiating police interactions on their own accord.
It is the leadership of the department that determines if the police response will be to engage the neighborhood in a positive community interaction or to aggressively enforce violations of laws no matter how minor.
Adding to the systemic problem are police chiefs who care more about protecting their positions, by masking their lack of leadership, insight, and ineffectively addressing community needs. They choose to be tough on crime and when the complaint is that actions are too tough, they respond by getting tough in doling out punishment to those that are tasked with carrying out orders. To the public they become the champions of justice in weeding out bad cops. It is easier to blame than to accept blame. And when due process is sought by the police unions to protect against unfair punishment, the answer always is to blame the union and the union contract that the leadership had agreed to.
Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon publisher. Smriti Jacob, managing editor, contributed to this article.