The divide at the RPD

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The Rochester Police Department is dealing with staff shortages and delays in the hiring process. (Photo by Henry Litsky)

The Rochester Police Department believes it is on the cusp of implementing a long-delayed reorganization. The patrol officers’ union, however, is not so sure about that.

Rochester Police Locust Club president Mike Mazzeo says the reorganization is not ready for prime time and the officers’ union could be ready to take “any legal action necessary” to slow down or even halt its rollout.

The reorganization has been slow to get going but would soon start to kick into a higher gear, “Septemberish,” RPD chief David Smith predicted in a July 10 presentation to NBN6, a coalition of six Southeast Quadrant neighborhood associations.

“We’d really hoped to be done with most components of it this summer. (But) we were waiting for negotiations with the Locust Club on the labor contract to finish up,” Smith told the group. “So that put us on a timeline. Some parts have been informed and are working. Some are going to occur in the fall and some are going to occur a little bit after that.”

Perhaps, but Locust Club concerns could further delay the reorganization’s rollout.

“We raised concerns when the city first announced the reorganization,” warns Mazzeo. “In our most recent and last contract negotiations that resulted in an arbitration award, the union’s opinion was that the city bargained in bad faith by not disclosing that they already were planning a reorganization. A reorganization that would change the language of the current agreement has not been printed yet.”

As Smith describes it, the plan currently calls for the RPD’s Central Section to be broken up and its units and personnel parceled out to the four remaining sections—Genesee, Goodman, Lake and Clinton—each of which is aligned with one of the city’s four quadrants.

Boundary lines of the remaining four sections, which now sometimes overlap quadrant divisions, would be redrawn to keep each section entirely in one quadrant—Genesee Section in the Southwest, Lake in the Northwest, Goodman in the Southeast and Clinton in the Northeast.

The RPD chief explains the plan as a much-needed reshuffling that will enable the department to make more efficient use of all-too-scarce frontline officers.

But to most if not all patrol officers, says Mazzeo, the reorganization is window dressing that will accomplish little but disrupt their routines and drive the department rank and file’s already low morale even lower.

At a recent presentation of the plan by senior staff, says Mazzeo, Locust Club members “walked out laughing.”

If the plan Smith describes goes fully into effect, the union chief fears, it will spur resignations and transfers out of a critically understaffed force that over the past few years has seen a record number of departures.  

RPD spokesman Lt. Greg Bello declined to comment on the possibility of union objections to the reorganization. He says he has no knowledge of any reorganization-related potential union grievances and notes that any talks to resolve grievances would not be conducted directly with RPD senior staff but would be handled by the city’s labor relations team.  

Smith says he would personally not be happy to see the Central Section broken up. But with the RPD critically short of frontline patrol staff, the section’s organizational chart no longer makes sense.

“I was the first captain of Central Section. I was there when it started. I love Central Section,” says the chief. “Central Section was great at the time when we had people to deal with it. At the time, we had our own neighborhood service lieutenant. The current captain of central has to deal with three different Neighborhood Service Centers, three different neighborhood areas.”

The reorganization means to align each of the RPD’s four remaining sections with each quadrant’s Neighborhood Service Center.

Each of the city’s four neighborhood centers is staffed with a cross-functional team that is supposed to give residents a close-to-home point of contact with a broad array of city services and functions ranging from permit applications to rental disputes.

Aligning police sections more closely with the city’s long-established quadrant divisions would let the department deploy patrol officers more effectively, Smith says.

The department’s rank and file is dubious, however, Mazzeo says. Beat cops see the realignment, which would send some officers to different sections where they would report to different captains, as a pointless reshuffling that will not meaningfully improve operations.

Morale among the rank and file is already low. The reorganization would at best not improve it and more likely would send it lower, Mazzeo contends.

In the Central Section breakup, the plan as currently drawn calls for some of the section’s supervisory personnel to be reassigned to patrol duty. Such transfers would need to be negotiated with the Locust Club.

“In the bigger sections, a sergeant supervises around 15 to 20 officers. In Central Section, a sergeant supervises three,” Smith explains. “The workload is not even and we’re not really to the point where we can quite frankly fully keep it.”

While the Locust Club is pleased with the conditions of the labor agreement it just negotiated with the RPD, Mazzeo says, “the union will seek relief on any action that violates our current agreement and affects the safety and welfare of our members.” 

Staff shortages

While it would eliminate Central Section, says Smith, the reorganization will not cut any special functions currently assigned to Central like the downtown foot patrol, investigative units or the mounted unit. Staffing for such units will be frozen at current levels, however.  

Despite the current staff shortage, Smith says completely eliminating units like mounted patrol, downtown foot patrol or investigative units would not make sense. Staffing has fallen but will rise again, he believes.

“It’s a temporary problem, Smith says. “You don’t want to make a permanent solution for a temporary problem. Temporarily, I can’t (fully) staff all of them. (But) if I look at eliminating units, you lose all the infrastructure. I have to sell the horses; I have to sell the truck and then in two years, when we want to have mounted again, I’d have to start from scratch.”

Mazzeo and Smith do not disagree on what ails the RPD. Both say the department is critically short of staff at a time when demands for its services are high. Both are troubled by a rash of resignations and departures over the past few years that have left the RPD critically and chronically shorthanded. Both see recruitment of new blood as essential if current ills are to be cured. Neither sees much changing any time soon.

The reorganization comes as the city faces an irksome concurrence of staffing and persistent public-safety challenges.

As the Rochester Beacon recently reported, high on the list of current ills are a rise in what used to be called juvenile delinquency—in particular, an ongoing rash of vehicle thefts, mostly of Kias and Hyundais, skyrocketing here as they have around the country.

The car-theft fad among youths and teens here and nationally began with a TikTok challenge last fall and has since not relented. Smith says the 1,300 vehicle thefts the city has clocked this year outpace thefts that occurred at this point last year.

Smith says the RPD ranks service calls as priority and non-priority. It further divides priority calls into first-tier and second-tier levels. Officers are dispatched to priority calls; non-priority calls are handled with reports.

Non-fatal shootings account for most tier 1 priority calls, Smith says. The department has formed a special unit to deal with them. That unit keeps a list of the top 10 illegal-gun offenders and tracks them. As soon as one is arrested, another known offender moves up to the top 10.

Under a special program, the RPD is working with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms to immediately see eligible illegal-gun offenders quickly charged federally, speeding up a process that could otherwise take weeks or longer. The two-year ATFprogram is extended to only five cities at any given time. So far this year, RPD officers working with ATF have taken 400 illegal guns off the streets, the chief says.

Still, Smith concedes, even such stepped-up efforts can seem at times to be facing tough odds in the face of a nearly insurmountable problem. One recently arrested gun offender was collared with an appearance ticket for the same offense that had been issued a week earlier in his pocket. Had he not happened to have been caught a second time, a court date could have been weeks or months away.

Tackling juvenile crime

On paper, the department currently has 356 officers available for patrol duty. However, Smith points out, on any given day, some number of officers are off the job for legitimate reasons like vacation, sick time or family emergencies. Such absences can easily leave patrol units understaffed. On average, says the chief, 62 percent or some 220 patrol officers are actually available.

Shootings and other tier 1 calls can tie up to four cars for an hour or longer, straining the department’s ability to respond to other calls. Even priority calls can be delayed. Smith says the department does not meet target times for priority call responses 10 percent of the time.

Car thefts, mostly of Kias and Hyundais, committed by youths and teens remain a stubborn thorn in the side of local police and victims alike.

Under Raise the Age, a law passed by the state Legislature in 2018, police and courts are required to treat 13- to 17-year-old offenders as juveniles.

To comply with the law, Rochester police follow a flow chart that lays out steps for dealing with minors depending on the detained youth’s age and offense level. A 16-year-old arrested for a misdemeanor traffic violation must be issued an appearance ticket, for example.

Smith says he supports the spirit of the law, but thinks the state got ahead of itself by not working out adequate mechanisms to deal with youthful offenders before the law took effect. And as it is now, he contends, police and courts do not have adequate tools to deal with youthful offenders.

“We don’t want young teens in with adults. The concept is all well and good,” Smith says. “I don’t disagree with it. The issue is that (with Raise the Age), we have lost the ability to temporarily detain.”

Many youth offenders would benefit from some kind of temporary detention short of arrest, Smith says. But currently the city lacks the means to do that. A city-owned facility that had been used as a temporary youth detention center was sold by the previous mayoral administration. A Costco wholesale center now sits on its site. Nothing has replaced it.

Currently, Smith says, too many underage offenders that city police apprehend are handed appearance tickets and sent on their way. As a result, he says, too many are left with the impression that they will suffer no consequences for misbehavior.

“We have to have time to talk to their families,” says Smith, “time to see what they really need as opposed to: here’s your appearance ticket. Go home.

“We kind of tried on our own. With juveniles with appearance tickets, we were sending outreach folks to say: ‘Hey mom and dad, what’s the problem here?’ But in that setting, standing at the front door of the home, or wherever you are, it just doesn’t work.”

Even so, the chief adds, “there’s parents out there asking for help. With these stolen cars, we get missing person reports, parents saying my kid’s bugged out, riding around in a Kia. I can’t control him anymore. That’s actually very common.”

Smith says he supports a program announced last month by Monroe County Executive Adam Bello to bring the county’s Probation Department into play to detain and counsel youthful offenders.

How much of a dent the newly announced county program might make or how quickly it can rein in what Bello describes as “carjackings and car thefts, smash and grabs, home and business robberies, and illegal gun violence” is not yet clear.

In the city, homicides are down so far this year, RPD data show. Nevertheless, says Smith, 911 data indicate that non-fatal shootings account for most of the time officers spend responding to calls. While more than 300 officers are officially available to answer 911 calls, the department is virtually never fully staffed.

Bureaucratic impediments

Lack of funding is not the problem. Smith says the RPD’s current $108 million budget is the largest the department has ever had. He sees bureaucracy as more of an impediment.

In the most recent RPD recruitment drive, the chief says, 5,000 potential applicants initially responded. Fifty were ultimately hired. Smith believes delays in scoring the state civil service exam account for much of the drop off.

In recent years, RPD spokesman Bello says, officer departures have outpaced new hires.

Smith partly blames hiring deficits on state bureaucracy. It takes a full year, following the state exam and physical and psychological tests, before recruits can join the force, a delay that he believes culls a significant number of applicants from the pool.  

“Who’s going to wait around a year to find out if they have a job?” Smith asks.

According to the Department of Civil Service records, the most recent exam was on Sept. 17, 2022. The department released the results for this exam to the city Civil Service Commission on Dec. 12, 2022, says Erin McCarthy, spokesperson for the state department. Eligible candidates will join the police department in December, RPD’s Bello says.

Smith says the RPD is working on developing its own exam. How soon or whether a local test might be in place remains to be seen. If the department were to develop its own test, says Smith, “the advantage would be we could give the test whenever we want. It would speed (up the) process to (a) matter of weeks instead of a year.”

Another advantage Smith sees to developing a local test is that it would make it harder for officers to transfer to another dept.

“If you train with the RPD and you want to go somewhere else,” says Smith, you’ve got to go through the whole academy again.”

With a city exam, Mazzeo believes that the department could lose out on test takers in other parts of the state, whose results wouldn’t be considered for Rochester.

“They need more people to go through the process (versus) shortening (the time taken to get) the test results by a couple of weeks or months,” he observes.

At the same time, Smith and Mazzeo see wooing so-called lateral hires, seasoned officers from other police departments, to the RPD as a desirable strategy that could relatively quickly allay some of the RPD’s staffing woes.

Mazzeo suggests offering signing bonuses to lateral recruits. Smith says the department is working with the city on a plan to do that.

“The nice thing about (hiring laterals),” says Smith, “is you don’t have to train them. We put them in a car with another officer for a few weeks and then they’re good to go. At this point, if I could get 10 laterals, I would be ecstatic.”

In the meantime, says the chief, “we will eliminate currently vacant supervisory positions to put more people on patrol. We’re literally taking resources from the other side of the department, if we don’t need them, they’re going on patrol.”

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Data visualizations for this article were created by Jacob Schermerhorn, a 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]

5 thoughts on “The divide at the RPD

  1. Do Police Spend Time at STRONG Museum of Play, to Find PATIENCE and RELAXATION?
    With the new expansion of Strong Museum of Play, I wonder if the Rochester Police Department encourages officers to spend time there, to calm down and consider more playful ways of coping with their stresses. Perhaps, the City of Rochester could pay for admission, at Strong.

    It occurred to me that Rochester teachers might benefit, from time spent at the Museum of Play. And why not encourage police officers to come to Strong, as well?

    I hope that Rochester Beacon does a story on the therapeutic benefits of play, and the promise of the newly expanded Strong Museum.

    “Life is too important to be taken seriously” (Oscar Wilde)

  2. RPD has a shortage of officers which is why they want to reorganize. Here’s a solution.start hiring people who actually live in the city and understand the city culture. Most RPD hires are middle class people most of which have never lived in the city. If a person from the city had a police encounter that lowers their chance of being hired. I’m not saying look the other way. But anyone who thinks that this doesn’t happen is just blind. You want employees? You want a better relationship with the people you serve..then maybe you should resemble a bit more . Because when you grow up in North Chili or Pittsford or the northeastern part of Webster..more then likely you’re going to have no clue when you come into the city

    • So, you hire from those who live in the city because they have a better understanding of kids that don’t get an education. They are denied that education because of a school system that cannot, will not, teach the way kids learn. Consequently we have drop outs to the street where they get “educated”. So instead of addressing the problem, EDUCATION, we need to hire people who realize, who understand the fact that education is missing. Am I missing something here. We need to adjust the police department staffing toward a school system that will not educate the way kids learn. That is nothing new, by the way, it’s been decades of a failing school system. ALL kids have innate skills or gifts. It takes a school system to make sure they discover their innate skill/gift. So lets adjust thing upward and graduate kids. Adjust upward not downward.

  3. The question is, will all this juggling of territory and procedure have any bearing on the youth’s mindset? Do a simple study on the youth involved in crime and their level of education. Any graduates? At its foundation the educational failure of the RCSD/RCSB is thee problem. If you don’t educate kids in school, the street will do the educating. It’s that basic, that simple. Teach the way kids learn. Crank up the Edison Technical and Industrial School of old. Start a Rochester Academy. Be creative! Realize that the RCSD/RCSB is the very worst in the NYS. Connect that fact with the current youth problem and you have your mission in hand. Shuffling the Rochester Police Department does nothing, zero, to address the mental mindset of the urban youth. Period. You don’t need a PHD in any profession to figure that out! You need to apply common sense education. That is where all the troubles are birthed. Pointing fingers at the police department and spending thousand of dollars and hours on that aspect is sticking once head in the sand regarding thee problem. EDUCATION!!!

  4. Thanks to the Beacon and Will Astor for your typically well written and informative work. After reading this I have a deeper understanding of the systemic problems faced by officers and the public. The information re disposition of cases involving youth is troubling.

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