The Police Accountability Board is pushing back against the notion that the organization hasn’t been doing work.
After a year of upheaval, the PAB last week finalized its Disciplinary Matrix and emphasized its current progress and future efforts in a meeting with City Council. It also highlighted areas where slowdowns in procedure have occurred.
“(In 2020 there) was one staff person, in 2021 two staff were hired. So, when people say the PAB has been running for four years, well, let’s take a look and see what was going on,” said Sherry Walker-Cowart, interim PAB executive director, at the May 1 meeting.
“In 2022, there were many more staff hired,” she continued. “(Even still) it was a tumultuous year. I know many people consider that to be our benchmark year. I don’t know how you can benchmark in such turmoil. I think we’re coming up on a benchmark year.”
The meeting was attended by members of the City Council, including Council President Miguel Melendez, Vice President Mary Lupien, Mitch Gruber, Kim Smith and Michael Patterson. Questions from the elected officials primarily focused on getting more details on the investigation process, outreach efforts, staffing shortages, and where breakdowns were occurring.
Walker-Cowart, who was selected to lead the organization by the remaining PAB board members in January, has previously served as CEO of the Center for Dispute Settlement, which oversaw the Civilian Review Board.
Since legislation passed to establish an accountability board in 2019, the body has faced challenges including conflict among upper leadership, a lawsuit from the police union and high turnover rates. Those factors, combined with expected startup challenges, have prompted questions about the PAB’s ineffectiveness.
Walker-Cowart highlighted “policy and oversight” projects completed by the PAB in the financial year 2022-2023. The project included greater transparency for the board through monthly reports as well as investigations into juvenile pepper spray and bean bag guns. Future plans include greater outreach through events and advertisements, more training for staff and more investigations.
The PAB’s official charter allows for the ability to “investigate complaints of police misconduct and to review and assess Rochester Police Department patterns, practices, policies and procedures.” Further, its mission and vision statements include ensuring public accountability and transparency as well as reimagining public safety.
“I think an effective, efficient, productive and well-financed PAB is an important variable that will move us toward public safety,” said Smith.
From June 2022 through most of April 2023, the PAB received 313 complaints, many coming during its first few months of operation. The number of new complaints has plateaued, with some PAB workers estimating a monthly average of 20.
Of the total complaints, a little more than half (167) are currently at some stage in the investigative process. One complaint has produced an investigative report, but no findings or reports of abuse have been released.
Nearly a third of those cases are at the “request for information” stage, where more clarification about the incident is needed from the RPD. However, Walker-Cowart characterized the flow of information as “inconsistent and unpredictable.”
Although she did add that she meets regularly with an RPD member to discuss cases, a bottleneck of complaints remains.
“Sometimes it feels like playing chess,” Walker-Cowart said, explaining a chessboard image alongside the presentation numbers. “You can only move so far until you get into a stalemate. So, we need to work out what some of those stalemates are and what some of those barriers might be to help this process flow better.”
Requests for information between the PAB and RPD take five days at minimum for a response, but in some cases, over a month will pass with no reply, Walker-Cowart said. The board may have to make requests two or three times for certain cases, further slowing down the investigative process.
“I’m happy to discuss getting to a better place with long-term, specialized, unfettered access. But I will say I think we’re at a point now where if you need to expeditiously get through cases, we want to make sure you do have what you need to complete your reviews and investigations,” Melendez said when asking for a list of information that was challenging for the board to access.
Another factor slowing the PAB’s progress is staff turnover, according to Walker-Cowart. The 167 investigations are divided among three case managers. One manager has 60 cases, the other two have roughly 40 each. Outreach, which the board considers important for building trust in the community, has similarly been affected as it is now handled by just one person in the Public Affairs and Community Engagement department.
The PAB’s primary goal since it started opening investigations last year has been to establish the Disciplinary Matrix. The matrix outlines potential penalty levels and sanctions for Rochester police officers who commit various levels of misconduct, officials say.
Now, for each substantiated misconduct case, the board can recommend discipline or mediation. The RPD then has 30 days to publicly announce if it will implement the PAB’s recommended outcome.
“The fact that the Rochester Police Department must explain to the people of this city exactly why or why not they will take the PAB’s recommendation gives something back to the community. In a system that typically lacks transparency, this is a powerful thing,” said PAB Chair Larry Knox when the matrix was announced.
Suggestions for changes to the matrix, which was developed with input from RPD and the Locust Club union, will continue to be accepted on a rolling basis.
The PAB has added three newcomers to its board, ending a string of canceled meetings due to lack of members. The next meeting is scheduled for May 18.
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].