On the thin blue line

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For Rochester Police Department officers, a difficult job has grown even harder over the last year.

“When I put on my uniform and go to work … I’m proud,” says Mike, a sergeant who has been with the department for around 10 years. “And then, maybe on the other side, tired and discouraged.” 

Fearing potential damage to their careers, Mike and most of the other RPD personnel quoted in this article spoke to the Rochester Beacon on condition that their real names not be used. The interviews took place before the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol put even more pressure on law enforcement personnel around the country.

They say they serve the Rochester public with pride, but are angered and frustrated by the treatment they’ve received from Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, City Council and some in the community. They also worry that a misstep on duty could lead to departmental disciplinary action, or even leave them vulnerable to criminal charges. Of the four, one identifies as a member of a minority group. (Among sworn RPD officers, Blacks account for only 11 percent; even fewer officers—7 percent—live in the city.)

Michael Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club and an RPD investigator, says many of the union’s members feel that way. The Locust Club represents roughly 725 RPD employees, including officers, sergeants, investigators and captains. 

“We got cops that put every ounce of what they’ve got into the job,” Mazzeo says. “Now, all of a sudden, they get the feeling that there’s nobody there (who) supports them.” 

That uncertainty boosts the anxiety and tension officers feel when they respond to calls that can require split-second, life-or-death decisions. They point to the Daniel Prude case as a prime example of what they fear can happen when they do what they believe to be their jobs.

The Prude incident

Police arrested Prude on Rochester’s Jefferson Avenue early on the morning of March 23. The 41-year-old Black man was naked, appeared to be suffering from an acute mental health problem and had recently ingested phencyclidine, a powerful drug that can cause agitation, mania, hallucinations and irrational thinking. 

Body camera footage from officers on the scene revealed that they handcuffed Prude, put a thin fabric “spit hood” on his head to prevent him from spitting on others, and held him on the ground for several minutes. While the officers were restraining him, he stopped breathing.

Emergency medical technicians responded, gave Prude CPR and transported him to Strong Memorial Hospital, where he died on March 30. The Monroe County medical examiner subsequently ruled the death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” 

News of Prude’s death was not made public until Sept. 2, after which his family released police body camera footage of the incident. Coming after the death in May of George Floyd, another Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police, the news spurred weeks of protests by Black Lives Matter and other groups in downtown Rochester. 

Protests occurred at various locations in downtown Rochester, including the Public Safety Building.
(Photo by Mike Costanza)

Demonstrators, sometimes numbering over 1,000, pressed for more intensive investigations of the circumstances of Prude’s death, the firing of the three officers who held him down, and the resignations of Warren and then RPD Chief La’Ron Singletary. They also called for defunding the police. Prude’s family wants criminal charges brought against the officers who were involved in his death, and has filed a wrongful death suit against the city of Rochester.

Becoming targets

Most who protested Prude’s treatment at the hands of police expressed their views lawfully, but others turned to violence. Some Rochester businesses were vandalized during the demonstrations, a downtown bus kiosk was set afire and some demonstrators taunted police or threw objects at them.  

Will, an officer approaching 20 years in law enforcement, didn’t respond to those provocations. That doesn’t mean they didn’t affect him.

“As a human being, it’s terrible. It makes me want to say ‘fuck this shit, I’m going home,’” he says.

Official responses to Prude’s death left some officers feeling as though they also were being targeted from another direction. On Sept. 3, Warren decried the actions that contributed to Prude’s death in March. 

“Mr. Daniel Prude was failed by our police, our mental health care system, our society and by me,” Warren said. “Today, I am taking action to address these challenges and build upon our city’s work to address racism in all its forms.”

Warren ordered the suspension of seven officers who were involved in the arrest, reprimanded Singletary and criticized him for “for failing to fully and accurately inform me about what occurred to Mr. Prude.” Singletary subsequently announced that he intended to retire but was dismissed before he could do so. The members of his command staff also retired, or moved into lower-level positions in the department. (Since then, Singletary has filed a notice of claim against the city and the mayor.)

Actions taken

Warren also announced that city government intends to take other measures to try to prevent such incidents as the one involving Prude from occurring again. These could include “retooling” the Family and Crisis Intervention Team program, “to pair mental health professionals with law enforcement to allow them to provide a more robust response to mental health-related 911 calls.” Trained FACIT professionals provide crisis counseling and other services to crime victims.

Mazzeo says RPD officers would welcome help dealing with mental health calls, but points out what he believes to be a weakness in retooling FACIT.

Michael Mazzeo
(Photo by Mike Costanza)

“A unit pairing up law enforcement with mental health specialists is going to be impossible to man 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says. “So, we have some type of good strategy that is available sometime … but not all of the time.” 

City Council has also taken action on the Prude case. On Sept. 1, the council voted 7-1 to repeal legislation establishing a $12.5 million bond issue. The money was to be used to build a new RPD Goodman Section and Southeast Neighborhood Service Center.

“Much has changed in our community since we met in August to discuss this project,” said Council President Loretta Scott. “We learned of and saw the gruesome video of Daniel Prude’s death in March, this coupled with the recent retirements and voluntary demotions of the entire RPD Command Staff, has led the Council to reconsider the appropriateness of the project at this time.” 

To some officers, the council’s repeal of the legislation, which originally passed 6-3 in August, was a slap in the face.

“It was bad for the community,” Mike says, “and it was perceived as a kind of a childish lashing out against the department.”

Taking other action, the council Sept. 15 voted unanimously to hire Andrew G. Celli Jr., of the New York City law firm Emery, Celli, Brinkeroff, Abady, Ward & Mazell LLP, to conduct an independent investigation of the incident. Celli has subpoena power, giving him the ability to dig deep into the issues and demand answers from those involved.

Celli isn’t the only person looking into Prude’s death. On April 16, state Attorney General Letitia James began investigating the circumstances surrounding his death to determine whether the officers involved acted properly and whether their actions could be criminal. James has convened a grand jury. 

For those patrolling Rochester’s streets, that turn of events brought an additional burden.

“You used to maybe be concerned you’d go out there and get shot, which is obviously a possibility,” Mike says. “Now, you’re concerned that you’re going to get out there, and the next morning you’re going to be indicted, and not have the support of anybody.”

Then in December, the city’s Police Accountability Board delivered draft answers to the Working Group on Police Reform and Reinvention, a city entity required by an executive order issued to all local governments statewide by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the wake of Floyd’s death. The findings in the PAB’s draft answers included several that underscore the tension between the RPD and the community:

■ Rochester has twice as many police officers per resident than the average similarly sized city.

■ The RPD has used practices widely seen as controversial or harmful.

■ The department may lack an internal culture that keeps its officers and Rochesterians fully safe.

■ Rochesterians from many backgrounds appear to want a thorough reimagining of public safety, rather than piecemeal reform.

The board has asked community members to comment on its draft document, with a deadline of Jan. 15.

Leadership questions

Mazzeo believes, based on the reports he’s received, that the officers involved in Prude’s arrest acted properly.

“What they did was exactly the way they were trained, and had to deal with time and time again,” he says.

Rather than target the officers involved, Mazzeo says, Warren should resign for the way she has responded to the controversy over Prude’s death.

“The mayor was making decisions in her own best interest,” he says. “Her inability to lead became apparent when she began placing blame everywhere but on her own doorstep.”

Others in the department say they lack the information needed to comment on the case, but they complain of the responses to Prude’s death, particularly those of city officials.

“It seems like there is a certain individual who was trying to save face and be on the side of the public, saying, ‘I got your backs,’” Brad says. “The mayor.” 

Officers and supervisors also were disturbed by the mayor’s treatment of Singletary, who spent more than 20 years working his way up through the RPD’s ranks to chief.

“It was a clear example to members of the department of how giving yourself to this city and this agency doesn’t buy any goodwill or respect when the politicians think they can gain something by sacrificing you,” Mike says. “He deserved better.”

A spokesperson for Warren said the mayor would not comment for this article.

The possibility that some of the officers involved in Prude’s arrest could face criminal chartes has increased the normal stress of doing a dangerous job.

“Officers in the department and in the profession will make errors that potentially could be the best decision that they could make with the information they had at the moment, and it won’t matter,” Mike says. “Tomorrow, any of us could be the next name in the news, and that’s a larger stressor.”

Limited understanding 

Will believes that part of the problem is a general lack of knowledge of the difficulties of police work. When RPD officers respond to an incident or situation, they usually have only the information that a dispatcher was able to glean from a brief telephone call. 

“It’s your job to then decipher the information and handle it appropriately within the Criminal Procedural Law,” Will says. “Sometimes, that’s taking place at 100 miles an hour.”

In addition, the victim and those on the scene aren’t always willing to help, making it even harder to deal with the incident appropriately.

“This isn’t across the board by any means, but you (sometimes) don’t have the support from witnesses and victims,” Will says. “If nobody’s going to cooperate with us, what are we left with?”

Officers also must juggle other tasks while dealing with perpetrators, and searching for people who know about and are willing to talk about the incident. 

“You’re trying to protect the public, you’re trying to protect yourself, you’re trying to protect a potential crime scene,” Will says. “You’re doing eight or nine tasks in a row.”

Under those conditions, officers can make mistakes. Will points out that doctors, school bus drivers and people in other positions don’t do their jobs perfectly, but the public demands that police officers meet that standard.

“People demand perfection when perfection is unobtainable,” he says. “After the fact, when the media and the public look at it, and they have way more information than we did at the time we were on the job, they’re overly critical.”

A new chief

While dealing with such issues, Will and other RPD employees will have to get used to a new boss. On Sept. 26, Warren appointed Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan as interim chief of the department. 

Herriott-Sullivan spent 24 years on the force before retiring in 2009 as the first Black woman in the RPD’s history to hold the rank of lieutenant. She went on to hold high-level positions with various organizations before donning the uniform again. When she took office on Oct. 14, Herriott-Sullivan achieved another first: she’s the first Black woman to head the RPD in its more than 200-year history.

Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan was named interim RPD chief on Sept. 26.

Brad has a wait-and-see attitude about the new chief.

“This is all still relatively new,” he says. “We need to give her more time in the position to appropriately judge her ability to get this job done, the right way.”

Mazzeo says that many on the RPD’s front lines are concerned about its leadership.

“With all of the turmoil at City Hall and the department, it is difficult for our members to have much confidence in any leadership right now, especially temporary ones.”

Herriott-Sullivan declined to comment on the Prude case and the actions of the officers involved, but she views the department’s future with a touch of optimism. 

“This is a difficult time for the city of Rochester and Rochester Police Department staff,” she says. “While these decisions were made prior to my appointment as chief, I am confident that we will get through this as a department together and come through it better and stronger.”

Despite their concerns about the way the RPD and its personnel have been treated, officers remain proud to do their jobs.

“Despite everything that is going on right now, would I do this all over again?” Will says. “Absolutely, in a heartbeat.”

Mike Costanza is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer.

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