The quest for a chief

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When Marvin Stepherson was a sergeant with the Rochester Police Department, he took special care to connect with neighborhoods on his patrol beat.

“I would sit in a beauty salon chair eating while the beauticians do hair. I would have a conversation with them and their clients, so they all knew me,” says Stepherson, who is now retired from the force and teaches at Roberts Wesleyan and Monroe Community Colleges. “I made it a point to go to all the businesses to meet the owners and find out what their hours of operation were, did they have any problems I should be aware of. But also, I made the time to talk about other things, like football or basketball or whatever. You know, about their life.” 

Recently concluded community input sessions conducted by the city of Rochester demonstrate that Stepherson’s routine is close to what most Rochesterians want in a chief of police. Rochester Mayor Malik Evans expects to pick a chief in the next few months.  Currently, David Smith is the interim chief for the RPD.

In addition to the four input sessions held on Zoom, Public Sector Search & Consulting, the firm hired to head the search efforts, also surveyed the community and police. Those results are expected soon. A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said the search process is projected to take 120 days from start to finish.

A complex situation

Whoever fills the position will inherit a complex situation. RPD, following a nationwide trend, is struggling to keep staffing levels full due to retirements, illness and transfers. Police misconduct cases in the department are also trending up based on publicly available data.

The new chief will have to work alongside the Police Accountability Board, which has been tasked with bringing transparency to law enforcement, as well as the Rochester Police Locust Club, the influential and sometimes criticized police union.

“We’re a watchdog for good policy,” Mike Mazzeo, president of the Locust Club, says to claims the group is obstructionist. “We’re not here to fight and argue just for the sake of that.”

The chief also must rebuild the trust of a community—the headline-grabbing death of Daniel Prude is one in a long line of controversial RPD events.

On top of those challenges is an escalation of violence in the city. While property crime rates have fallen sharply over the last decade, violent crime has recently spiked, notably incidents of homicides previously reported by the Rochester Beacon.

Against this backdrop, the community is torn over what  attributes it wants in a new chief. However, most in attendance at the input sessions agree a new RPD chief needs to create change.

“From mental health to income inequality, Rochester is a microcosm of the country,” Stepherson says. “These are issues the entire nation needs to improve.”

Ties to the city

For starters, many residents want a chief with ties to the city itself.

“There’s a gentleman across the street from me who is an officer. We see each other, say hi to each other, I see him cutting his grass. We’re not strangers to each other,” says Antonia Wynter, an activist with Community Justice Initiative. “You are a stranger when you’re not from the neighborhood, when you don’t go into the neighborhood regularly.”

Diallo Payne, an attorney and fellow activist with CJI, agrees, adding, “It’s a breeding ground for disaster when there’s no connection with the community.”

Mike Johnson, a cofounder of the activist group SAVE Rochester, saw that type of engagement from interim RPD chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan. She took the time to show up to many gun violence forums held by SAVE, Johnson says.

Herriott-Sullivan resigned from her interim position on Oct. 13. She stepped in after former RPD chief La’Ron Singletary was fired from the job. (Singletary had offered his resignation on Sept. 8, 2020, and had planned to stay until the end of the month.)

Marvin Stepherson

Prior to Singletary, Mark Ciminelli held the position for five years, from 2013 to 2018. According to information from Public Sector Search provided at the community input sessions, the average tenure for a police chief in the U.S. is 3.8 years.

The frequent turnover is keeping the job from improving, Stepherson notes.

“When your neighbor doesn’t live there for more than a few years, and then you get a new neighbor, there’s no relationship built. There’s no continuity built because the turnover is so high. Same with the chief. We’ve had three different chiefs over two years, so how do you build continuity with your people, the community, the mayor’s office, with the union?”

“We don’t need another turnstile of leadership at that position,” says Mazzeo, who would like the new chief to stay for at least five years.

Quick fixes

The employees of R&R Grab and Go see their restaurant on North Clinton Avenue as a place where people can pick up homestyle Dominican food, “like grandma makes,” and products from the island that are hard to find in the United States. They want to celebrate and preserve the culture of their home country nearly 1,800 miles away.

From left to right, Ronaldo Rosado, Rafael Belliard and Marilyn Rosado of R&R Grab and Go.

Last fall, they became part of the story of violence in Rochester. On Oct. 20, a victim of a shooting on nearby Rauber Street ran into the store to escape a perpetrator, terrifying employees and customers.

“Imagine you hear five, six, seven shots, and then you see a guy running in here, all full of blood,” says Rafael Belliard, who runs R&R with family members.

Ronaldo Rosado was manning the cash register when he heard shots and panicked.

“Then they came, I mean they were rushing in here, and yelling (that) someone was coming after them,” he says. “At that time, you’re not thinking straight, you don’t know what to do. So after that happened, I hid behind here,” Rosado says, indicating the counter.

From both a financial and psychological perspective, the restaurant has suffered. R&R was forced to shut down for a week for the police investigation and to clean the blood off the floor. And Belliard says he still feels anxiety because of the trauma of the event every morning. 

“It really does not change, but I fight through it. I don’t have a choice,” Belliard says. “We used to have families coming in here two, three times a week. Since then, business is extremely slow. We’ve been touching into our savings. And delivery is killing me. I can’t offer delivery because no one wants to come into North Clinton; they say, ‘I don’t want to grab food from here and have to go back and forth.’”

R&R Grab and Go is part of the North Clinton Business Association. A group of business owners, from restaurants to groceries to jewelry shops, NCBA actively participated in the community town hall sessions.

The North Clinton Avenue neighborhood has seen a 57 percent decrease in nonviolent crime but witnessed an increase of 4 percent in violent crime over the last decade. Since 2011, the Clinton police beat has accounted for one-third of all violent crime incidents in Rochester.

“When someone asks me what I want in a new police chief, I say I want someone who is aggressive with the obvious,” Belliard says. “I’m looking for quick fixes. I’m not looking for that vision of five years, 10 years, ‘it starts in the schools,’ ‘it starts with talking with kids,’ ‘it starts with walking the streets.’ That’s right and great, yes. But I’m looking for someone who I can see the difference tomorrow.”

Belliard’s desire for a chief who is focused on immediate solutions is echoed by others in the NCBA. They suggest that, when police presence increased during a recent housing construction project in the area, it brought a level of security that helped their businesses succeed and deter criminal activity.

However, aggressive tactics by police in Rochester and elsewhere have spurred community organizers to action. Johnson says SAVE Rochester launched when he and some friends brought signs inspired by the abolitionist movement with an “Am I not a man and a brother?” image to a protest at Midtown Commons and Public Safety Building following the death of George Floyd. They returned once again, after the video of Prude’s death was released.

“There was an overwhelming sense of agony we felt at the time. (The signs were) a way of adding color to the protest and a way to visualize the messaging,” says Johnson, who also works as a public school teacher. “Rochester has a history of racial protest and justice, which this is just another part of.”

Says Wynter:  “Almost a year after Daniel Prude, we had another case where police pepper sprayed a nine-year-old girl. Unacceptable. These incidents keep bubbling and bubbling out of control, and no one is taking the lid off the pot.”

Wynter worked with CJI on a bill banning use of chemical irritants on minors.

Belliard says he’s aware of these issues, but he still thinks an aggressive policy is the best approach and does not have to be mutually exclusive with conscientious policing.

“Of course I understand the stereotypes. If you see a young Black man, Spanish man, white man, Puerto Rican man, walking down Clinton Ave at 1 a.m., it’s eight below zero, with his hands in his pockets, I don’t want a police chief to pull him over. That’s racial profiling, that’s not the obvious,” Belliard says. “There’s a whole lot of obvious (evidence) that my cameras pick up. If you stay here for four hours, there’s a whole lot of obvious that you can actually do something about.”

A longer view

For Monroe County Legislator Mercedes Simmons-Vasquez, one of the issues a new chief must tackle was staring her in the face as she led a training session at the Latino Youth Development and Resource Center.

A young man revealed he was carrying a gun with him during a discussion on conflict resolution. When Simmons-Vasquez asked him why, he said it was because he needed protection walking by Carl Street, around the corner from the center.

“So from here to your house, you’re in danger?” she asked him. He said, “’Yeah, there’s like four drug houses.’” 

“That shows you the danger and the fear these young people have to live with,” she says. 

In addition to providing a safe place for schoolwork, creative projects, coat drives and employment training, the youth center, which used to be home to Simmons-Vasquez’s campaign office, also has a supply of Narcan nasal spray, used in cases of opioid overdoses, available for free to those who ask. The center also stresses the dangers of drug use.

This element of youth engagement was a platform in Evans’ mayoral campaign. In the leadup to the election, his Youth Opportunity Agenda included a plan to increase funding for Rochester Teen Court, focused on low-level youth misdemeanors, and the city’s youth employment services through a Youth2Work program. Simmons-Vasquez thinks this focus on youth engagement must extend to the new chief of police as well.

“That young man who came in here with a gun, he’s a good kid. But for some reason you’re afraid and you feel you have to walk along with a gun. How do we address those fears?” she asks. “There’s a war out there I can’t fight on my own. I can provide you with a safe place while you’re here, because I can control who comes through those doors, but I can’t control outside of here. And that terrifies me.”

Monroe County Legislator Mercedes Simmons-Vasquez at the recent reopening of the Latino Youth Development and Resource Center.

Simmons-Vasquez is a supporter of the NCBA and agrees with Belliard’s desire for an aggressively minded chief. At the same time, she also thinks the RPD needs to form partnerships with the school district, the welfare office, child services, trade unions and local nonprofits like the LYDR center.

“We’re in the community giving food, educating and advocating, doing things police won’t do or can’t or aren’t trained for,” says Wynter, who has been frustrated with police initiatives in the past. “Give us the funds. We’re already doing the work.”

CJI has a five-pillar approach to community development that highlights key issues—absent spirituality and sense of community, poverty, unemployment and miseducation—and how they are connected. Similarly, SAVE Rochester has already partnered with local businesses like Selena’s Mexican Restaurant and Lori’s Natural Foods to combat food insecurity. The RPD could be another potential partner.

“These strides we’ve made toward equity—homeownership, minority- and women-owned businesses, training and technology—they’re just now coming to fruition. Maybe within a decade we will see the fruits of those efforts. Long-term change takes time; we have to start on it now,” Johnson says.

As a former police officer, Stepherson thinks a major roadblock is the racial disparity in the department.  Nearly three-fourths of law enforcement personnel in the RPD are white, while only 12 percent are Black and 10 percent are Hispanic. This is at odds with the overall racial makeup of the city, which is 37 percent white (not including Hispanic or Latino), 39 percent Black and 19 percent Hispanic, according to latest census estimates.

A way to combat this issue and enact lasting change is to recruit those who look like their community, which can begin with youth engagement.

“The fire department is masterful at this,” Stepherson says. “It’s because they go in to meet kids with positive interactions. The junior firefighter program means they’re acclimated to that culture: They go on to serve as ambulance drivers, EMTs, firefighters.”

While optimistic, Stepherson also says people should be realistic about the timeline for long-term change.

“Certainly, with law enforcement, we have some 400-odd years of culture to change,” Stepherson says. “Part of that is recognizing that, apologizing for not trying to have done something sooner, and working harder at changing those things. Because that will impact everything else moving forward.”

The hiring process

Public Sector Search & Consulting is now seeking police chief candidates from its networks and will conduct interviews and prepare a shortlist for Evans’ review. The organization has helped with searches for executive positions in many other cities, including locally in Syracuse, Albany and at the University of Buffalo. Its most recent search in New York was in 2020, for Beacon, a town along the Hudson River with a population of just over 15,000. 

Molly Rhodes, who currently serves as a Beacon City Council member but was a local citizen at the time, was part of the search committee made up of community leaders, religious and civic organizations, and police representatives. She felt engaged throughout the process.

“(Public Sector) helped frame and guide our efforts, including setting ambitious and achievable timelines, ensured that as a community committee we could feel confident, and listened to us as we made our own recommendations to the mayor,” Rhodes says.

But Justice McCray, a local citizen and organizer with Beacon 4 Black Lives at the time of the search, was dissatisfied with the proceedings. Although a member from B4BL had a seat on the community advisory board, McCray says they were blocked from holding a position on that body. They were also unimpressed with the final result, an inhouse promotion of interim chief Sands Frost after the other final candidates withdrew.

“A lot of community members called in to City Council to speak out against the city of Beacon spending money on (the consultants), but ultimately we were dismissed,” McCray, who now serves as a City Council member, says. (Public Sector’s contract with Beacon was $24,000.) “As a community activist and organizer, it did not feel like the city took into consideration any of the public’s insight or concern.”

For Rochester community organizations, some of whom were invited to special smaller group input sessions, the experience overall has been positive.

“It was good to get invited to the table, but it was a little last minute,” Johnson says. “When you send an email on Tuesday for an event on Thursday, it’s a short runway to get people.”

Says Payne: “I feel like they listened, so it’s so far so good. But it’s also hard to know where your ideas end up.”

Prior to this search, CJI helped with community outreach for the VIPER task force, a 60-day surge of federal resources and actions to combat gun violence last summer. The VIPER task force included federal and state entities such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and U.S. Marshal’s office, partnering with local agencies such as the Monroe County Sheriff’s office, District Attorney, and Rochester Police Department. However, CJI felt underwhelmed after those initial conversations.

“Around VIPER there was so much buzz and media coverage. But it felt like it was more a pacifier than anything, where (organizations in VIPER) could say, ‘We opened our doors’ than they were actually listening,” Wynter says. “Malik needs to be transparent (about the RPD chief search) so we know our efforts aren’t going by the wayside.”

“The community should be involved from the onset to the very end. They should be part of the recommendation, recruitment process and selection,” Johnson agrees.

While Mazzeo of the Locust Club has no problem with community involvement, including the public town hall sessions, he questions their effectiveness in navigating these complicated matters. 

The level of involvement many community members want is unlikely, adds Stepherson, who is familiar with law enforcement contracts and says most people do not understand the complexities of the system.

“When we talk about contract agreements with the mayor’s office, the chief’s office, the DA and city attorneys, a lot of that stuff the lay citizen isn’t going to be able to impact or influence or be a part of that collective bargaining agreement,” Stepherson says, adding their true impact is through their votes. “I do think the mayor wants to hear from them, of course, but it comes down to his decision ultimately.”

Says Mazzeo: “I’m confident the new mayor will do what’s best for our city.”

Confidence in the Rochester mayor is echoed by Johnson, who says SAVE Rochester remains optimistic that Evans has the best of intentions.

“At the end of the day, change is needed and change is welcomed by us,” Johnson says.

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.

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