It is, La’Ron Singletary says, “a tough time to be a police officer.”
Like many of his counterparts nationwide, Singletary, who has been Rochester Police Department chief since June 2019, leads a force that has slid under the microscope since the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.
The call for the transformation of police departments, from disallowing excessive use of force to increasing accountability and transparency and even defunding operations, has never been louder. Since Floyd’s death millions of Americans have taken to the streets in protest, including in Rochester, and continue to ask for change.
Two-thirds of Americans say that civilians need to have the power to sue police officers to hold them accountable for misconduct and excessive use of force, even if that makes the officers’ jobs more difficult, a recent Pew Research report states.
The Pew report also found that across racial lines police performance ratings are lower than they were four years ago. White Americans who say the police are doing a good or excellent job on accountability dropped to 34 percent from 50 percent in 2016. Twelve percent of Black Americans give police a good or excellent rating, down from 21 percent four years ago.
Singletary acknowledges the need for scrutiny and reform of police departments. But he also is emphatic: Rochester should not “take issues from other cities and drop them on the backs” of city residents and the RPD.
“I think one thing that people must be cognizant of is that we here in Rochester don’t have the problems that other agencies around the country might have,” he says.
A native of the city of Rochester, Singletary leads more than 700 men and women in uniform; 93 percent don’t live in the community they police. He would like that to change, starting with updating an archaic civil service exam. A staunch advocate of community policing, which he believes could be more effective with police officers who come from the community they serve, Singletary hears the cry for change. Though he doesn’t believe the new Police Accountability Board will cure all ills, he prioritizes community engagement and accountability.
“Accountability starts with me” as RPD chief, Singletary says. “I’m not only chief for the men and women who wear the uniform, I’m also chief for the community, chief for the citizens of Rochester.”
New York’s repeal of Section 50-a of the Civil Rights Law, which permitted police to keep misconduct records from public scrutiny, heightens the urgency for transparency as well. Passed in 1976, the law said that police personnel records used for performance evaluations were confidential unless mandated by a court order. The secrecy continued over the years, limiting public access to police disciplinary records. Singletary is in favor of transparency. He hopes the decision to repeal 50-a will lessen the divide between the police and the community.
He doesn’t agree, however, with City Council’s recent decision to approve a new spending plan that contains a nearly 4 percent cut to the RPD’s $95 million budget. It could result in RPD taking a closer look at the services it provides with an eye toward efficiency, Singletary says, turning toward other agencies better equipped to answer some calls for service. RPD might not be able to do it all.
A few weeks ago, Singletary spoke with me in a wide-ranging conversation about policing, the Black Lives Matter protests, the push to defund the police, and other topics. An edited version of our conversation follows:
ROCHESTER BEACON: As Rochester police chief, you’ve said it’s your job to build trust of police in the community, especially among Black and Hispanic residents. Have the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day and the wave of protests against police brutality here and around the country made that job much more difficult?
LA’RON SINGLETARY: I think certainly, given what’s happened around the country, even though it didn’t happen here. You have incidents that happened in Minneapolis, that happened thousands of miles away. You have the incident that happened in Atlanta, Ga., and we’re seeing incidents continuing to unfold around the country. But I think one thing that people must be cognizant of is that we here in Rochester don’t have the problems that other agencies around the country might have. We are certainly not perfect and every day we strive to get better, but I think people must be cautious to not take issues from other cities and drop them on the backs of Rochesterians and the Rochester Police Department because I think we have done the work, we continue to do the work and we’re always looking to get better at how we can improve the work we are currently doing.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Have you personally met with local Black Lives Matter leaders since the protests here began?
SINGLETARY: I guess the question would be who are the leaders of that particular cause? As we’ve seen, there have been many Black Lives Matter movements since the George Floyd incident in Minneapolis. I have not had anybody personally reach out to me with regard to wanting to meet with me and I don’t know actually who is actually the head, if you will, of the Black Lives Matter movement here in Rochester. But no one has reached out to me. I know that there are many people who have spearheaded movements, protests, but no one has reached out to me, no.
ROCHESTER BEACON: The city’s population is 40 percent Black. Among sworn RPD officers, only 11 percent are Black—and most of them, the officers, (93 percent) don’t live in the city. Is it a problem that the demographics of the RPD force do not reflect the community it serves?
SINGLETARY: As a chief, I want the department to reflect the community that we serve. I think we continue to try to find ways to try to recruit individuals who do that. One of the things that I have done as chief is to put a second person into our recruitment unit. I think for the longest time period we’ve only had one person in our recruitment unit. I think a department this size, when you talk about 700-plus officers, you know, ideally, I like to say each and every person is a recruiter for our organization because every contact they make they make in the community is a contact and an opportunity to recruit. However, a department this size probably needs more than two people to be dedicated to focusing on a plan for recruitment. But I did, when I became chief, put a second person for recruitment. We have two individuals who are minorities within that position; they are continually finding ways to go out there and try to advertise our brand and this is a brand. Policing is a business. If you go to a private company, there’s a strategy in place to recruit and I think a police department should be no different.
As we continue to navigate through these waters that we’re finding ourselves in, when we talk about policing and policing reform, we have to continue to build upon strategies that are going to help us achieve the goal of making our police department reflect the community. Now, one of the things that are barriers to that, and one of the things we must look at and probably strike while the iron is hot, is the civil service system. I think it is very archaic; it presents barriers to allowing us to recruit and hire the people that we want to hire within our organization.
“As a chief, I want the department to reflect the community that we serve. I think we continue to try to find ways to try to recruit individuals who do that.“
I know many of my (fellow) police chiefs across the county feel the same way, that the civil service needs to change when it comes to the rule of three; and even in Rochester we have a consent decree that says that for every three majority I hire, I have to hire one minority, so that will always put me at 25 percent. So, it (was) implemented back in the late ’70s to help the Rochester Police Department attain people of color within its ranks. However, it could also be looked at as a hurdle as well, because it’s keeping me at 25 percent recruiting people of color. Those are drastic changes that we must make now in order to get that done. So that’s not lost on me.
ROCHESTER BEACON: What other police reforms are necessary? What are your reform priorities?
I think one of the things we talk about here in Rochester is what we need to do, and I think many people across the country are talking about what police departments need to do, and that certainly should be part of the equation. But as I said earlier, we must caution ourselves to make sure that we’re not putting the burdens of other police departments across the country on the backs of Rochester and the Rochester Police Department.
We must talk about what we currently do here, and I think that is getting lost. When I became deputy chief back in 2018, Mayor Warren asked me to come up with a Community Policing Plan. She gave me 60 days; it was a tight deadline to come with a Community Policing Plan. But nonetheless we were kind of visionaries, we saw that there needs to be a Community Policing Plan in place and across the country you hear community policing. But what actually is community policing and whose job is it to actually to come up with strategy to assure that we’re doing it?
“We are certainly not perfect and every day we strive to get better, but I think people must be cautious to not take issues from other cities and drop them on the backs of Rochesterians and the Rochester Police Department.”
I created a strategy. I looked at the New York City Police Department, I looked at the Washington. D.C., Metropolitan Police Department. … What I did was I created what we call the Community Affairs Bureau now. Before, the Police Department (had) two bureaus: the Operations Bureau, which is patrols, uniform, special operations, and then we had the Administration Bureau that dealt with contracts, negotiations, labor as well as hiring and recruitment. Then we created the Community Affairs Bureau where we housed, at the time, the school resource officers as well as the crime prevention officers that (oversee) community policing, as well as recruitment and the public information office under one umbrella.
I asked the mayor for a couple of positions and she allowed me to have those positions and we created a Community Policing Plan where were able to go out there and extend the olive branch and establish relationships with our community, not in times when people were in crisis, but at times when people just didn’t need 911. We went out and knocked on doors and said, “Hey, how are you doing?” We gave people a voice and we continue to do that, not just when there’s a traumatic incident in the neighborhood but also when there is nothing going on. We can extend the olive branch and have conversations with people.
So, some of the things that I kind of stand for—(that) have been my priorities—are one, crime. Obviously, every police department has to reduce crime, but I think we do that with a conscience, with some understanding and compassion. We’re certainly assertive, but we’re not aggressive when it comes to fighting crime.
The second priority is community engagement. We have the Community Policing Plan and we go out and extend our olive branch. The third part of it is what people are talking about right now, accountability. Accountability starts with me at the top of the organization as chief of the Rochester Police Department. I’m not only chief for the men and women who wear the uniform, I’m also chief for the community, chief for the citizens of Rochester. So, I think that’s very important, accountability. People want to know that when things happen, there are people who are in position who are going to hold people accountable.
Then the fourth thing is professional development. You know what we are doing at every level within the organization to make sure that everyone is being professionally developed, receiving the appropriate amount of training, and things like that so we can become better as an organization. What are we doing to learn from other agencies across the country so those things don’t happen here in Rochester. Trying to stay ahead of the game, ahead of the curve.
And then the last thing, which is big right now, which everybody is talking about is transparency. I think since I have been chief—I took over the department April 17 of last year as interim chief and I was confirmed June 18 of last year, so I’ve been in the position a little over a year as being head of the Rochester Police Department. And one of the things that I have always tried to do is be transparent; we try to get out in front of issues. When officers have done wrong, I have held officers accountable, I have suspended officers, I have terminated officers. And when officers have done the right thing according to policy and procedure, I have backed officers, and I have backed officers publicly. I think that’s important.
Certainly, there are going to be times where we don’t agree, the public and I, about certain sentiments and certain things that are decisions that I have to make. But I’m not in this position for polls. I’m not in the position to be liked; I’m in the position to do right thing by the community and the police department based on policies and procedures and that’s my job, that’s my role. I don’t have to make decisions based on polls and nor should a police chief. But I think that it’s very important that we are transparent. One of the things when we talk about transparency is 50-a; New York State just repealed 50-a.
“Every police department has to reduce crime, but I think we do that with a conscience, with some understanding and compassion.”
When there was talk about the Police Accountability Board last year, I was very vocal in saying that I really believe what people want is they want to know what happens when they file a complaint with their police department and they want to know the outcome when a police officer has been found to have committed an act that the person made a complaint on. I think that anonymity that was there before prevented legitimacy and transparency. And so now removing that, is that going to be the silver bullet that is the end all be all? Probably not. But it’s a start. It is a start. So, transparency is huge, and transparency removes the anonymity and I hope it lessens the divide between the police and the community.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Do you think the Locust Club, the city police union, an obstacle to reform or a partner in that effort?
SINGLETARY: I think the union certainly has a role when it comes to protecting members’ rights. Particularly those entities that may have management that may be overzealous, that may have management that may have a heavy hand or have the wrong intentions. So, I certainly believe the union has a role. But I think there has been, when you talk about unions across the board or in law enforcement, I think there have been certain obstacles that have been put in place that have not allowed police chiefs, law enforcement executives, to deal with things swiftly and as transparently as possible based on some of the laws in New York State, based on some of the things within collective bargaining agreements between police departments, city entities and the unions. Certainly I do believe unions do have a role to protect members (from) management who maybe overzealous or may have a heavy hand, but I also think that unions and collective bargaining agreements have prevented management sometimes from taking swift actions on certain instances or incidents involving police officers that I think lends to the distrust or the lack of transparency that the community might have toward the police department.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Does that frustrate you?
SINGLETARY: Yes. I would say it does. But I think just like anything, what you have to do is that you have to sit down (at) the table, and you have to engage in dialogue, engage in conversations to say how can we make the department better, that’s beneficial to the members as well as the management. I think President (Michael) Mazzeo and I talk quite often, and he talks quite often with our deputy chief of administration. When we have issues, we talk about them, we try to work them out, and if we can’t or we agree to disagree, then we have process in place for that as well.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, you have a good relationship with Mazzeo then?
SINGLETARY: I would say that we certainly do what we need to do to make sure that we look out for the best interests of everyone, but certainly management has a role and the union has a role and like I said, when there are issues, we certainly do talk them out.
Defunding the police
ROCHESTER BEACON: City Council (recently) approved a new spending plan that contains a nearly 4 percent cut to the RPD’s $95 million budget. Do you agree with this cut? What does “defunding the police” mean to you?
SINGLETARY: The last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to figure out what the definition of defunding means. The first thing that comes to mind to me is taking money away from the police department … and I think we must be very careful when we do that because we must one, ensure why we’re taking money away from the police department, and we must ensure that there is not a small segment of the population that is making the decision for an entire city, and I think that people must have a voice.
Me, personally, I think that when you talk about defunding the police department you have to be careful because the reason why I think the Rochester Police Department does not have the issues that other police departments have across the country is because we do invest in our police department, we do invest in the training, we do invest in the equipment that officers may need to go out and do their jobs and the knowledge, skills and the abilities and the tools that they need to go out and do their job.
One of the things that I always worry about as a law enforcement executive is am I giving my officers the necessary knowledge, skills, abilities and tools to go out there and do what we’re asking them to do because we’re asking law enforcement to do so much more than what they’re probably equipped to do. When I say equipped, I mean the knowledge, skills and abilities. Over the years there have been so many things that have been dumped into the laps of law enforcement because other things have been cut. Mental health services, social services and those things have real consequences that trickle down, and when people no longer receive those services and that need is still there, there is call 911. Call 911 for this and call 911 for that. And we must be careful and cognizant when we talk about defunding the police.
And I’ve said it to City Council, and I’ve said it publicly, that the people who we’re going to hurt the most, when you talk about defunding the police and the way I see it, is Black and brown communities. Black and brown communities are the ones who need the police the most. In urban areas, we see gun violence and we have seen that kind of take off around the country with respect to the rise in gun violence. We see that urban communities rely on the police more to settle their disputes, settle grievances with one another. … And that’s why I had to go on the record and kind of say that, you know, we’re in the middle of a pandemic as well. We have a lot of people who are unemployed, and when typically that occurs, we typically see crime rise. When you divest, when you take money away from the police department, that’s when you start to see issues because the training is not as prevalent because the funding is not there. I think there is a silver lining that we can kind of hopefully come out on the other side of this and be better than where we were before this. But I think there needs to be voices, and I think voices can be heard. We cannot make rash, irrational decisions.
We’re talking about taking almost $1 million away from my budget, and that’s what I say when we say we cannot look at the problems of the country and balance them on the backs of Rochester. We cannot do that. We just cannot. And if we do that, it’s going to require a hard look at some of the services that we provide. If we want to remain efficient as a police department, as an organization providing the same type of service to the community and a quality service, we may have to look at some things that we are not be able to do anymore. We’re going to have to look at possibly not providing as many police officers to unreimbursed special events within the city of Rochester, which is about public safety. We’re going to have to look at the cost for service that we, as police officers currently respond to, as a primary agency and may have to look and see if other agencies that are better equipped to deal with those calls for service versus a uniformed police officer.
“I’ve said it to City Council, and I’ve said it publicly, that the people who we’re going to hurt the most, when you talk about defunding the police and the way I see it, is Black and brown communities. Black and brown communities are the ones who need the police the most.”
One of the things we don’t want to do certainly is criminalize behavior that does not need to be criminalized, and I’m sure there are better people, who are equipped who have the training, the skills to go out there and deal with issues such as a 10-year-old not wanting to go to school so mom or dad calls 911. We may need a social worker to respond to that incident or a social worker to follow up within a school environment versus a uniformed police officer. So, I think that those are some of the things that we must take a hard look at and I think those are some of the calls that we’re seeing at this point.
ROCHESTER BEACON: So, it’s fair to say that you don’t agree with the cut?
SINGLETARY: Yes, you’re right. I don’t agree. Response times could potentially go up. The less resources you that you have out there on the street responding to calls for service, you know, the less resources that you’re going to have to be able to respond. When I say Black and brown communities, it’s individuals who are standing on the corner loitering, open-air drug markets, those are things that typically happen in an urban environment that we see that are more prevalent and those individuals who live in those neighborhoods or go to those neighborhoods when they call 911 for someone on the corner or a quality (of) life issue, they want a police officer to show up to their house and an officer to say, “How can I help you?” So those are things we must take into account.
Over the last several weeks we’ve had annoyances for fireworks across the city. We have to prioritize the jobs. So, the less resources that are out there, the less individuals that I will have to able to respond to those type of calls and I don’t think it’s fair to those individuals who I think we are kind of, sort of depriving of public safety.
Guardians versus warriors
ROCHESTER BEACON: I have two more questions, Chief. Do we have time for two more?
SINGLETARY: Sure, absolutely.
ROCHESTER BEACON: We’ve been hearing from police chiefs across the country that the burden on police departments is so great, they are responding to calls like you describe. Do you favor narrowing the focus of what police officers are expected to do and shifting some responsibilities to social service agencies? What’s the way to find a compromise here?
SINGLETARY: I think certainly having a conversation. I know that the mayor is establishing a commission with County Executive Adam Bello. I think we must sit down at the table with many partners within our community, advocates, activists, those individuals from our community and from law enforcement. We must sit down and come up with a response because when you take money away that’s an immediate response and when we’re talking about putting a plan together, that’s going to take some time and that’s going to cost money. To be able to respond to those situations that we’re indicating that may require social service agencies to respond to, that’s not going to happen overnight, and we have to see if they have the capacity to do so.
But I am in favor of narrowing the scope of policing. I am, to deal with protecting and serving. Over the years we have seen police departments continue to add more and more and more to their plate. Sometimes with more and more and more to their plate does not come the funding that probably needs to come with the police department. The training that needs to come with the officers dealing with the more of what they’re being asked to deal with. We can give officers so much more training, but it’s never going to equate to a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a social worker or a Ph.D. equivalent. It’s never going to equate to that. We give our police officers 10 months of training, six months in the academy, four months in basic training, and we do the best job that we can to tell them how to be the best police officer. The rest of it is kind of on-the-job training. Do we want our police officers to be dealing with certain situations while doing on-the-job training? I don’t think we want them to be dealing with that learning as they go in certain situations. One thing about law enforcement is that they adapt, and they overcome. But I’m all for looking at the way we do policing, looking at the way we train with an eye toward being guardians. There’s a concept of guardian versus warrior. I think we do need to have a discussion about training and the way we go out there and police. Those calls have been made loud and clear.
“We’re fighting a pandemic of COVID-19 and we’re also fighting a pandemic of racism and we haven’t found a cure yet for either and if we’re going to coexist—police and the community have to coexist, Black and white people have to coexist—we must be able to sit down and have a conversation. “
ROCHESTER BEACON: Guardians versus warriors, that’s very nuanced. Do you police officers get that difference?
SINGLETARY: I think it’s a good question that you ask. I hold many conversations throughout the community, and they say, “Chief, we know you get it, but do your officers, the officers who deal with the public, get it?” I think one of the things that as chiefs and as sheriffs we have to make sure is that that message trickles down. You try to go out and visit roll call, you try to harp the message down, you try to send it through communications about what your values, your mission, and your vision are for your department. You can put placards out, you can put emails out, but you really have to be on the ground, and that’s what I try to do, I try to be on the ground with the officers, having conversations with them, because it is a tough time to be a police officer right now.
ROCHESTER BEACON: Yes, it is.
SINGLETARY: It is very tough when you see police officers across the country being charged criminally, facing prison sentences, and even capital murder in Georgia. It’s very tough, but what I tell people is that police officers have to remember why they took this job, remember the oath that they took and remember there’s a silent majority that is out there that appreciates what we do each and every day. I tell people, if you see a police officer, go up to them and thank them. That means so much to a police officer. Engage them in conversation, say with curiosity, why do this job with everything that’s going on right now? I think people will be surprised by the answers that they get. Too often we always talk about how we don’t know our neighbors enough. We need to, if you’re a community member, be bold and go up to a police officer and ask them questions about why they do what they do. Learn more about the policing business. Learn more about the police officer in the neighborhood and challenge them. Challenge them respectfully in a conversation, not challenge them by fighting or physically resisting. Challenge them and engage them so that we can understand one and another and walk away with some sort of understanding. We may not necessarily agree, but we can walk away with some sort of understanding of one another as to why we have opposing views or similar views on a particular subject. At the end of the day we need to realize that we’re all humans.
“I try to be on the ground with the officers, having conversations with them, because it is a tough time to be a police officer right now.”
We’re all humans, we belong to the human race. We may have differing opinions and we know that individuals have biases; what we must do is we must check those biases. I think we sometimes check those biases by calling each other out and informing one and another about what’s going on in society because right now we’re in a tough time in society. We’re fighting a pandemic of COVID-19 and we’re also fighting a pandemic of racism and we haven’t found a cure yet for either and if we’re going to coexist—police and the community have to coexist, Black and white people have to coexist—we must be able to sit down and have a conversation. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to push this envelope forward.
ROCHESTER BEACON: One last question: As an African American, how have the last several weeks been for you personally?
SINGLETARY: In order for you to want to go somewhere, you have to figure out where you’ve been. It’s one of the things I strive for as police chief, (that) those individuals coming on the job understand the history of policing. We’re trying to come up with a curriculum right now with our recruits in the academy, post-academy, where they get a chance to visit several entities: Ibero, Action for a Better Community, the Jewish Federation, entities and ethnicities at locations like that in Rochester. So that they understand one, that Rochester is a melting pot, but you also have to understand that the history of policing has not been so kind to certain segments of our community. We must understand that history, so we don’t repeat it.
“When we had those riots on May 30 and to be police chief and to be from Rochester, to see that, that’s pain. That hurt. That’s pain. So you reflect on it. “
I think it’s very important to have cultural competence when you’re talk about individuals who may be coming into police in an urban environment and they understand what it’s like within urban environments. You can put a minority officer into a rural environment and the same thing needs to happen.
For me, what it’s been about is about reflection, understanding the history of what policing is about, understanding why people are calling for change, understanding that people (want) policing with compassion and trying to find ways to do that.
I see the pain. When we had those riots on May 30 and to be police chief and to be from Rochester, to see that, that’s pain. That hurt. That’s pain. So you reflect on it. There are opportunities as a leader when you go home at night, when everything is calm, when you’re out of a situation and you reflect on that. You drive into work the next morning and you see boarded up windows, broken glass and buildings you realize that the people who own that business, they own that business to take care of their families for a living. So, there was a lot of pain, there was a lot of reflection and wanting to make sure that we come out of this on the other side in a better place and that we’re a better agency in dealing with such.
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.