A bid to reimagine public safety in Rochester

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Rev. Lewis Stewart wants the Rochester community to have a say in the reimagining of public safety. To that end, the United Christian Leadership Ministries, where Stewart is executive director, has proposed a Community Public Safety Corps and this week will host a Community Police Summit.

Stewart believes these efforts will go a long way toward decreasing negative interactions between the Rochester Police Department and city residents. He is clear: ULCM’s position has never been the defunding or abolishing of law enforcement.

“If you go into the Black community, and you talk to people my age, or people who are middle aged, most people say they need the police,” Stewart says. “But in their needing of the police, they want the police to be nonracist, they want them to be fair, they want the police to be respectful, and they don’t want the police to be resorting to violence and hurting and killing people. They don’t want that at all.”

Rev. Lewis Stewart

However, neighborhoods would like the police not to bring excessive force against members of the community. 

Last week, ULCM proposed a Community Public Safety Corps—an effort that would reallocate funds from the RPD to the tune of more than $2 million. UCLM has suggested a pilot project for the Northeast quadrant of the city where roughly 30 people, as members of the Corps, would work in three shifts, with a director and a deputy director.

“What we want to be able to look at is what the area was like in terms of arrests, in terms of service calls etc. before the Corps got there,” Stewart says. “And then have the Corps be there, and then evaluate that about six months to a year out and then see what it is in order to determine whether the Corps program is going to be successful or not.” 

In no way does the Corps take the place of police, he says.

“We need people working in our community to help people to do peacemaking … and to bring quality services to the people,” Stewart says. 

The Corps is not expected to take the place of the Rochester’s Persons in Crisis team, which responds to mental health and substance abuse issues. The PIC Team aims to increase connection to community crisis services that meet the need by de-escalating crisis calls; diverting crisis calls to the most appropriate response option, activating law enforcement only when needed; and supporting post-crisis to address needs to stabilize and prevent future problems. 

“The purpose and function (of the Corps) is totally different than mental health,” Stewart says. “So, if they would run into a situation that demands mental health by intervention, then they would call on the PIC to come and intervene in that particular situation.”

On May 21-22, UCLM and the Greater Rochester Community Police Initiative are holding a Community Police Summit, with forums, panel discussions and seminars. It marks UCLM’s fifth summit—the first one was in 2016—based on President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing initiative.

The summit will examine the reforms that resulted from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203 and its implementation, in an effort to inform the community. The first day will focus on the city, police recommendations and how they should be implemented, Stewart says. State Attorney General Letitia James is the keynote speaker on May 21. 

“I know people are upset with her with the Daniel Prude thing and hopefully people will be available to ask her questions about the Daniel Prude situation and why the grand jury went the way that they did with their decision,” Stewart says.

On Feb. 23, the grand jury investigating the death of Prude chose not to indict any of the Rochester police officers involved in the case.

On May 22, the summit will hear from representatives of municipalities in Monroe County and the Monroe County sheriff’s office who are expected to also have recommendations for reform. The keynote speaker is former Deputy Mayor Cedric Alexander, who is also a veteran law enforcement leader. 

In addition, the two-day event will include forums with representatives from WilmerHale—a law firm that performed an independent review of the RPD for the city, the Police Accountability Board, state legislators and Rep. Joseph Morelle.

“What’s being done on the state level in terms of ending qualified immunity? What’s being done relative to 50-a, because we know that the unions are challenging it,” Stewart says. 

50-a, a section of the state Civil Rights Law that withheld from the public discipline records of police officers, firefighters, and prison officers, was repealed last June. Critics says, however, that many police agencies continue to keep discipline records under wraps.

“What is being done on the state level to address those issues? What is Joe Morelle doing on the congressional level to deal with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and what’s being done to standardize police training and other issues? So, this is what we hope to ascertain. This is what we hope to find out.”

For Stewart, the ideal outcome of the summit would be to “stop all this murder and mayhem that’s going on in our community, to stop the excessive force, to stop the police brutality, to stop the lethal killing of people of color by police.”

UCLM is not new to the police-reform effort. It previously proposed a citizen interview committee where three city residents would interview potential police recruits to ensure they are a good fit for the community. The panel would then send a recommendation to the chief of police. Racial justice education training is yet another idea.

The current way of training law enforcement officials is limited, Stewart believes. UCLM would like it to be experiential, with people of color. Also on its wish list is de-escalation training.

“Right now, you get more use-of-force training than de-escalation training,” Stewart says. “Cops are trained to shoot in the chest, they are trained to be warriors, instead of servant protectors in the community in which they’re supposed to serve and protect. We want to change all that.”

He adds: “We want to dismantle the culture of policing. We want to deal with systemic racism. And then the other thing that we need to do is look at our attitudes of white supremacy and behavior, which kind of fuel issues of systemic racism in training and procedures and in our policies.”

Stewart knows that reform would require changes on the state level, including Civil Service Law revisions, ending qualified immunity and giving mayors the authority to fire law enforcement officers for misconduct. He realizes that police unions oppose some of these moves and says he has yet to hear of a satisfactory solution to that predicament.

The other essential step, Stewart says, would be to give the power to discipline police officers to the Rochester Police Accountability Board. 

“Because unless they’re able to do, so they are a paper tiger without any sharp teeth whatsoever,” he says.

During the protests sparked by the deaths of Floyd and Prude, calls for abolishing the police were loud. Stewart, who observes that the Black community is not a monolith, worries whether those who favor abolishment take the need for a replacement into account.

“If you can’t come up with something that you’re going to put in that vacuum, then you need to think about what you’re saying,” he says. “UCLM’s vision has always been about not defunding, not abolishment, but reallocation in terms of divesting from the police militarization equipment, which you don’t need anyway, and investing those resources back into the community.” 

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

One thought on “A bid to reimagine public safety in Rochester

  1. My experience with Reverend Stewart , agree or disagree with certain proposals , is that he has always worked for a more just community . What I am not sure about from this reporting and other reporting , is will the Summit also examine local District Attorneys and the application of criminal justice ? The way people of color are charged and sentenced , and the failure of police accountability via the D.A.’s office , must also be addressed . The George Floyd case has another shoe to drop , and that is the sentencing . Additionally , I must wonder if there will always have to be ten witnesses , police brass testifying for the prosecution , and many minutes of clear video of a murder in progress , for a police criminal to be convicted ?

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