In 2019, Rochester voters overwhelmingly supported the creation of a police accountability board. Following a lengthy period of expected and unexpected speed bumps, the PAB began accepting complaints three years later.
However, other roadblocks, including leadership and personnel changes, have stymied action. Critics have called for the PAB to be restructured or dissolved. Last week, the board canceled its scheduled meeting, citing the lack of quorum.
Partnership and trust are central to effective civilian oversight of police conduct, experts say.
“I’ve learned over time, it’s often not the project or the program, it’s the implementation that sinks something. Sometimes you have to cut your losses and start from scratch,” said Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, former Rochester Police Department chief and host of a recent online discussion.
The event, held by Rise Up Rochester, where Herriott-Sullivan is vice chair, shared best practices. Implementing civilian oversight systems can promote legitimacy and procedural justice for the community, officers and police executives, the panelists contend.
Included on the panel were Joseph McMilian, contributing faculty at Walden University and former president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives; Shon Barnes, chief of police in Madison, Wisc.; Denise Rodriguez, chief deputy monitor with Puerto Rico Consent Decree; and Cameron McEllhiney, executive director of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Civil rights attorney Marcia Thompson moderated the discussion.
While many municipalities created or bolstered review boards following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Daniel Prude in Rochester, the concept of oversight is relatively new, the panelists said. In some cases, boards were created with little foresight.
“After 2020, many municipalities and cities sought to implement civilian oversight boards as a mechanism, not only to reassure the public, but also to ‘do what everyone else is doing.’ And so not a lot of thought has gone into some of these civilian oversight boards,” said Barnes.
McEllhiney noted that the first civilian oversight mechanism was put in place in 1928.
“It had no power, it wasn’t codified in law, it didn’t last very long,” she said.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that civilian oversight mechanisms in the U.S. had anywhere near the authority or power they needed to carry out their mandate, she said.
Proactive oversight, the ability to deal with issues before they arise, is a novel concept, McEllhiney added.
A survey by NOBLE found that some high-ranking law enforcement officials viewed oversight as unnecessary or like “Big Brother was watching” and worried about it damaging their overall effectiveness, McMilian said. He stressed that trust needed to be established between civilians and officers in the beginning stages of an oversight board in order for it to run smoothly.
One way to build trust is for review members to participate in ride-alongs. Civilians can learn more about the procedures while also building rapport with police officers. Ultimately, methods that cement a partnership are useful for later success.
“In Rochester, we had a little difficulty with that because at a certain point, not all but some PAB officials made anti-police statements. It really put me in a difficult position trying to convince the officers that they were going to get due process,” said Herriott-Sullivan.
“We believe that it is only through cooperation, collaboration and with community support that we can achieve this goal,” reads a statement by the PAB released after the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. “The death of this young man is another tragic reminder of how dire the situation is and how urgently we must act.”
Other factors that can affect an oversight board’s effectiveness is understanding procedure and mandates. Staff should be careful to not overpromise and stick to what is laid out in their charter or risk losing legitimacy in the eyes of both law enforcement and the community.
“I’d suggest (to civilian oversight boards) the same advice I received during investigations: ‘Follow the facts.’ Don’t let your impressions lead you to a conclusion,” Barnes said.
The Rochester PAB lost its mandate for disciplinary powers in 2020, following the ruling in a lawsuit brought by the police union Rochester Police Locust Club. The power to independently investigate potential wrongdoing by individual officers and examine all RPD policies, procedures, practices, and training remains.
Even without disciplinary power, oversight boards are not powerless to affect change. Rodriguez suggests that, since police reports are public record, they can be used to bolster ongoing efforts to fix systemic problems. It is a lengthy process, but she mentioned Fort Worth and Las Vegas as places where this strategy worked.
“Many, many years ago, when we first went in (to Las Vegas), officers were resistant to us, the community didn’t want to engage with us. Nobody believed that change would happen,” Rodriguez said. “(Some years later) there was an incident of deadly force and their response was a complete 180 from where they were before.”
In that example, they moved quickly to hold the officer accountable, releasing body cam footage and engaging with the public in a timely manner. Later, the ACLU would credit those changes for why no rioting or protesting occurred.
Rodriguez also identified a big issue that can sink many oversight boards: ego. Especially among law enforcement and civilian leadership, it can stop groups from thinking collaboratively on issues.
However, in the power calculus of Rochester, if law enforcement has an ego problem, it has been overshadowed by internal conflicts at the PAB.
“The PAB has been working tirelessly with Rochester City Council to fill the three vacant seats on the volunteer board to ensure that the work of the agency can continue,” a recent statement released by the PAB reads. “After discussions with City Council, the sincere hope and expectation is that the board will be able to welcome new members by the end of (March).”
Issues with leadership came to light last summer when executive director Conor Dwyer Reynolds was put on administrative leave due to an internal complaint alleging a confusing and inappropriate work environment. Reynolds then claimed the suspension was a retaliatory attack after rebuffing sexual harassment from PAB Chair Shani Wilson. Those accusations, which Wilson denied, led her to resign.
In November, Reynolds was officially removed by a board vote that occurred days after the release of a City Council-commissioned independent investigation.
The investigation found Wilson’s actions toward Reynolds improper for a supervisor, but could not substantiate accusations of sexual harassment. It also deemed that Reynolds showed a disregard for city policies by releasing internal documents in violation of the Freedom of Information Law procedure.
During that time, Chief of Investigations Duwaine Bascoe was named acting manager. Bascoe oversaw a number of firings and resignations, which PAB staff described as intimidation in a letter released last October.
In January, Sherry Walker-Cowart was selected by the remaining board members as interim executive director following Bascoe’s departure. Walker-Cowart previously served as CEO of the Center for Dispute Settlement, which oversaw the Civilian Review Board before the creation of the PAB.
“There is work being done. That is one thing the community should know,” Walker-Cowart said in a February statement. “Case managers are taking calls every day. Our team is investigating these reports fully and our policy team is looking for ways to change public safety on a systemic level. Work is happening at the PAB.”
Earlier this year, City Council voted to use $750,000 of unspent PAB funds toward upgrades at the city-sanctioned encampment, Peace Village.
“I have a lot of confidence in her,” said Herriott-Sullivan of Walker-Cowart’s appointment. “I’ve known who she is as a person for a long time so I think we can start with that.”
The next scheduled PAB meeting is April 6.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].