The city of Rochester’s Police Accountability Board released its first annual report today, providing an overview of its activities and findings between June 2022 and June 2023.
“It was, and is, imperative that citizens of our community are aware of the work of the PAB, as well as our collective responsibility to public safety,”Sherry Walker-Cowart, PAB interim executive director, writes in the report.
During that year-long period, the civilian oversight board received 360 reports, averaging about 20 a month, after an initial high volume at the beginning of the time period.
Two hundred seventy-seven of them related to individual police conduct which included “allegations of misconduct and commendations.” Fifteen were made on policies, patterns, practices, and procedures of the Rochester Police Department, while 51 did not involve a sworn officer of the Rochester Police Department or did not contain enough information to conduct an investigation, which were classified as Lack of Jurisdiction.
The process begins with a case manager, who handles each report and determines whether it goes further to the PAB Investigations and/or Policy and Oversight Department. According to the report, most initial contact with PAB staff occurs over the phone, followed by the online form or other methods such as email submissions, and referrals from 3-1-1 or the Professional Standards Section of RPD.
Following further investigation, an investigation findings report is sent to the board for review. The board then conducts a panel hearing and gives a recommendation based on the PAB’s Disciplinary Matrix, a rubric which was finalized this year.
The matrix was completed as part of the City Charter requirements for a PAB, and is required to be created “in conjunction with the RPD chief and Locust Club President.” A draft was published last October. The matrix was approved in May 2023, following public input.
It assigns a level from 1 to 5 for every potential misconduct based on the potential harm to the community. The number of prior violations increases the recommended disciplinary action with conditions ranging from a written reprimand or counseling and training, to multiple-day suspensions, to full on termination in the most extreme cases. The matrix is used in panel hearings for recommended action to the RPD chief, who is expected to respond within 30 days with a written explanation of whether they agree or disagree with the PAB’s recommended finding.
According to the report, 77 cases have been closed with the vast majority falling outside the jurisdiction of the PAB or being non-investigatable, generally due to lack of information. Those cases spent an average of almost 200 days pending, much higher than the goal from the City Charter of “resolving all complaints within 90 days.”
The board gave recommendations in four cases, with three complaints being “not sustained” and one being “unfounded.” As of June 30, 2023, the report details there “were no closed cases with information pertaining to whether the police chief enforced or disputed the panel’s disciplinary decision.”
Previously, Walker-Cowart has said that while she meets regularly with an RPD member to discuss cases, a bottleneck of complaints remain due, in part, to inconsistencies in information sharing.
“Sometimes it feels like playing chess,” Walker-Cowart said in a June interview with the Beacon. “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.”
As of June 2023, only two of the 137 requests for information by the PAB to RPD were fulfilled in full, and none of those full data handovers happened in 2023. The average time spent waiting for a response from RPD was 30 days.
These struggles at obtaining information align with the PAB’s 19 policy recommendations from its proposal titled “Police Data Transparency: A Proposal for Change”. The oversight board recommends maintaining up-to-date datasets for police misconduct, traffic, bicyclist, and pedestrian stops, calls for service, use of mental hygiene detention, use of force, officer firearm discharges and others.
The annual report also details staffing at the PAB, reporting that board members for City Council East and South remain open. The nine volunteer members are nominated by three groups: City Council, the mayor, and the PAB Alliance. Members are voted on by the City Council for approval.
The board has Larry Knox, confirmed as permanent chair last year, Arlene Brown, vice chair, Rabbi Drorah Setel of Temple Emanu-El, social worker Daniel Cadet, Rev. Keith Patterson of the Episcopal Church of St. Luke and St. Simon Cyrene, activist Mary Wambach and William Clark, former president of the Urban League.
Beyond the volunteer board, the PAB has a staff of 18 spread across five divisions of operations, case management, investigations,public affairs, and policy and oversight. In June, the City Council approved a $3.7 million budget for the 2023-34 fiscal year that would expand that number, supporting a staff of 30 full-time and 2 part-time employees.
The PAB hopes to improve community engagement with priority populations including Black, Latino and Asian communities, non-English speakers, refugee or recent immigrant groups, the LGBT community and populations with disabilities. From June 2022 to June 2023, the PAB participated in over 120 community outreach events in the city.
The PAB also has made policy investigations into RPD’s use of force on juveniles and RPD’s use of bean bag guns. The agency plans to release a full report on their findings in the future.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer and data journalist. 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].