RPD and the community

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When Rochester Police Department Chief David Smith spoke to the public recently, he called attention to a framed picture of Sir Robert Peel’s principles. In particular, Smith pointed to Peel’s comments on the police maintaining a relationship with the public because “the police are the public and the public are the police.”

This focus on Peel, who twice served as British prime minister and created the first professional police force in 1820s London, and the community-police relationship comes with a new report on the subject. Released last week, the Community Engagement Assessment analyzed the department’s policies through four experts gathered by national agencies.

“This assessment will help us take steps to build trust in our community and help to make the city a safer place,” Smith said.

The report gave recommendations for improvement. Key among them: increasing positive and proactive interactions from patrol officers, changing to a “guardian” cultural mindset, and avoiding siloing engagement efforts to a single department. At the same time, it noted the progress RPD has made already, including a willingness for leadership to make adjustments.

“(A strength of RPD is) the willingness of Chief Smith and RPD to evaluate their current engagement efforts and seek assistance to make improvements, as evidenced by the request for this assessment,” the report states, also noting strength in “a receptive community that is looking for more RPD engagement and is willing to help with new efforts and create an improved police force.”

Members of the Police Accountability Board were also supportive of the assessment, with board member Yvonne Wilson giving kudos to the efforts of Smith and Keith Stith, deputy chief of community engagement, at PAB’s most recent meeting.

“I would also ask the community to give them a chance because they are trying, but they can’t do it by themselves,” Wilson said. “We need to come alongside them and help them to the best of our ability.”

“What we have learned from this Community Engagement Assessment is that Rochester is moving in the right direction,” said Smith. “We still have a lot of work to do. We look forward to continuing our work utilizing classic principles combined with modern recommendations.”

Mike Mazzeo, former president of the Locust Club, the Rochester police union, says the issue of disconnection is dire but also widespread across the nation. As such, he is decidedly less impressed with the report. (The current leadership of the Locust Club did not respond to the Beacon’s request for comment.) 

“I think if you read this report on Rochester, and you read reports on other municipalities from across the country, you’d see that these reports would look almost like boilerplate material,” Mazzeo says. “Because really, everyone’s having the same kind of issues.

“And then the responses like here: ‘We’re moving in the right direction.’ Well, you can be going in the right direction across the desert, but if you ever make it across is a whole other story,” he adds.

A  request to participate 

The study was conducted through national agencies including the Bureau of Justice Assistance, Project Safe Neighborhoods Training and Technical Assistance program and the National Public Safety Partnership.

Rochester was one of six cities selected in 2022 to undergo this assessment process. PSP was formed in 2014 as part of the U.S. Department of Justice, and Smith said RPD had previously requested to participate in the program.

“Starting in 2020, our relationship with the community was fractured due to a number of events that occurred here. So, my first priority was answering how do we rebuild that. I wanted a fresh outside look at that,” said Smith.

Four experts on subjects ranging from police-community collaboration to community violence-reduction strategies conducted a pre-assessment department questionnaire, reviewed existing policies, and conducted 26 onsite interviews of RPD officers at different levels and ranks as well as community leaders from nine organizations selected by RPD community engagement command staff.

Those interviewed included representatives from schools, Black and Latino communities, homeless support services, faith-based organizations, groups serving crime victims and their families, refugee services, health services for excluded communities and an LGBTQ+ community center.

Eighteen recommendations were split into seven categories and given short- or long-term time frames ranging from three to six months to 12-18 months. TTA also offered to help implementation upon request.

Changing culture

Among the top recommendations was an intentional culture shift from a “warrior” to “guardian” mindset across the department in policies, training and, ultimately, attitudes.

“Police play a unique role in a modern society as the only element of the state that is authorized to use force against citizens when necessary. They should be focused on service and guardianship with only a rare need to transition to warrior posture,” the report states.

This warriors-to-guardians approach echoes comments that former police chief La’Ron Singletary made to the Rochester Beacon in 2020.

“I hold many conversations throughout the community, and they say, ‘Chief, we know you get it, but do your officers, the officers who deal with the public, get it?’ I think one of the things that as chiefs and as sheriffs we have to make sure is that that message trickles down,” Singletary said at the time. “You can put placards out, you can put emails out, but you really have to be on the ground, and that’s what I try to do, I try to be on the ground with the officers, having conversations with them, because it is a tough time to be a police officer right now.”

The report notes that most RPD interviewees currently believe only the Community Policing Unit, a single part of the department, is responsible for engaging the community. This responsibility instead should be shared among all officers, as stated in official RPD policy.

“This cannot just be an assigned duty, but a change in mindset for all involved,” said Smith about the culture shift. “It cannot just fall to the office of the chief, or the Community Affairs Bureau.”

“You can’t just say, ‘Well that’s how we’re engaging, we have X amount of officers and they’re going to go out and do community policing.’ Community policing mainly involves patrol officers,” Mazzeo contends.

“We still have a lot of work to do. We look forward to continuing our work utilizing classic principles combined with modern recommendations,” said RPD Chief David Smith.

Instead of relying on a single unit or outside organization, RPD should increase efforts across the department. The report recommends that the department regularly host events such as front porch roll calls, coffee with a cop, barbershop sessions, and police-youth dialogues to share information and ask for community perspectives.

However, sometimes at community engagement events, Mazzeo says, even for the officer, the interactions can feel shallow, “showing up just for the sake of showing up.”

“It’s like putting a mascot out at an event to walk around to make the people happy. It’s not really accomplishing anything other than making a few people happy right then,” says Mazzeo. “Are we doing what real engagement is and what real interaction is? Are we building real relationships? I really don’t believe so.”

He believes a previous model of neighborhood precincts was a more natural way of creating community engagement opportunities. Patrol sections in that system were smaller and allowed for more genuine connections to be made.

Starting in 2015, the city was divided into five patrol sections across Rochester: Goodman, Genesee, Clinton, Lake and Central. A reorganization plan in 2023 cut that down to four sections, mainly absorbing Central into Genesee.

Although expansion of stations was planned by former Mayor Lovely Warren, funding for a proposed Lake Avenue building was pulled in 2020 following the death of Daniel Prude. Since then, the city-acquired land has been imagined as a potential neighborhood service center but little actual progress has been made.

Engaging proactively

Community interviews also showed that RPD needs to be more proactive overall. A primary theme, identified as the No. 1 issue mentioned, was that officers are simply not getting out of their cars enough.

“Even just parking in front of a store, spending five minutes to get out and go say hello to that shopkeeper; it’s five minutes in an officer’s work day, but it’s something that shopkeeper is going to remember for a long, long time because oftentimes the only time people interact with us is when they’re having a very, very bad day. We need to change that,” Smith said.

The chief says the recent hire of former Brighton Deputy Chief Michael DeSain as RPD patrol commander is an effort to improve in that area. He also said that response times and calls to service workload were an issue RPD was working through in this respect.

“Despite being nearly 100 officers short, the men and women of the police department continue to risk their lives daily in order to make our community a safer place,” Smith added.

The assessment found, however, that despite the open RPD positions, Rochester does not have a shortage of police officers compared to other communities.

“Many officers reported that RPD is significantly understaffed, with approximately 80 of the 850 authorized positions vacant (770 positions filled),” the assessment notes. “Rochester has a population of nearly 210,000. With 770 officers, RPD has approximately 3.7 per 1,000 residents, well above the national average of 2.4.”

The 3.7 per 1,000 resident figure is also above the average for New York, which is 3.2.

Staffing vacancies at the department in recent years have often been cited as a reason for poor response times. The engagement assessment suggests the community’s patience with this explanation is wearing thin.

“Don’t tell people we didn’t respond because we are short staffed,” and “Stop saying you are down 80 officers; it’s an old argument” are both quotes from community interviews in the report.

In addition, the report reveals that some RPD officers do not agree with the chief’s manpower assessment.

“Not all RPD leadership shares the belief that RPD staffing is inadequate,” says the assessment. “A few interviewees claimed that RPD’s current staffing levels are adequate to respond to calls and take on other responsibilities such as community engagement.”

Breakdown in communication

Other areas of improvement include communication, which the assessment report says is needed for transparency and trust with the community and local media.

“RPD’s communications can be modernized, decentralized, and used to a much greater extent than they are now to promote community engagement and trust,” the report states.

Currently, almost all communication is conducted through a single source, RPD’s public information officer, Lieutenant Greg Bello. Section commanders will occasionally volunteer to assist as well. In addition, only the PIO has access to social media accounts.

“RPD’s social media has not been used for community engagement or promoting conversations with the public for several years. (The PIO) has not posted on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok,” reads the report.

Smith says this area has been improved already, however, with the hiring of a digital media specialist last fall. He says RPD now has one of the “most verbose social media accounts in our region.”

Smith also cites the “Along for the Ride” and “Behind the Badge” video series on the RPD YouTube page as prime examples of ways for the community to get to know the personalities of officers. The series also clearly serves as a recruitment tool for the department. (The earliest video in that series is from August 2022, a year before Smith says the digital media specialist was hired.)

While social media could be used as a solution to the engagement issue, Mazzeo believes it has done extensive damage to the relationship already. Law enforcement now has to consider how online netizens will react to each interaction they have, which he says automatically raises the tension for officers.

“It is difficult when there are other factors weighing in that makes engagement with the community and police even more difficult than it already is,” he says.

Quick reactions to events that move in real time have no guardrails for misinformation, Mazzeo believes. A lack of proper context can lead to division between law enforcement and the community.

Similarly, he says reforms, such as measures requiring officers to record body cam footage or identify why they are speaking with someone on the street, while well intentioned, actually do more to increase that distance.

Reflecting community

Another issue the report highlighted was the gulf between the department’s demographics and the community it serves.

According to current RPD records, only 31 of the 631 non-civilians employed by the department live in the city of Rochester. Additionally, Chief Smith and Deputy Chief Stith are the only top leadership who reside in the city. All captains, commanders and lieutenants live outside the city.

“Recruitment of qualified diverse candidates from within the city of Rochester will help find officers who want to protect their community and families,” the assessment observes, connecting that sentiment back to a “guardian” mindset.

RPD similarly struggles to have a staff that reflects the race, ethnicity, and gender makeup of Rochester. In particular, the report calls the number of Black officers a “stark under-representation” compared to the general populace.

Among sworn employees, Black and Hispanic officers make up 9 percent and 12 percent of RPD, respectively, while white officers comprise 79 percent. Citywide, Black and Hispanic residents account for 38 percent and 19 percent of the population, while white residents account for 36 percent.

This divide holds true for leadership positions as well, with white employees making up the majority of command staff.

Women, who are 51.9 percent of the city population, account for 13 percent of non-civilian RPD staff. Elena Correia is RPD’s highest-ranking woman; she serves as the deputy chief of the administration bureau.

The engagement assessment recommends an expansion and retooling of recruitment efforts to focus on city residents. Advertised required skills should include communication, empathy, problem-solving abilities, and a commitment to public service rather than enforcement activities.

The assessment team applauded RPD efforts already in place to recruit more diversely, particularly for Black, Latino and new American officers.

“The department has even advertised for community recruiters or local stakeholders who can be trained to help identify prospective candidates for police officer positions,” the assessment notes.

Smith says the last five recruited academy classes, which were all near 40 percent minority, are also a point of progress for the department. Similarly, the chief says training for new recruits now includes additional cultural immersion training due to efforts by Stith.

Mazzeo agrees that better reflecting the community could help community engagement. Still, he isn’t sure of its effectiveness. 

“How do you get people to see this as a viable career if you vilify the position and the work?” Mazzeo says.

He says a shift in attitude is required. While there should be community criticism of bad actions, there should be an equal amount of energy supporting people who are doing a good job.

Smith’s announcement of the report also served as a defense of RPD’s engagement process thus far. The chief said even while the report was being compiled in 2023, RPD was already correcting deficiencies identified by the process.

For example, Smith pointed to the recent hires and work already done with the community by DeSain, Stith and the department’s new digital media specialist. RPD’s partnership with the Urban League was another element Smith says will expand further in the future.

He says the recruitment efforts have resulted in diverse new academy classes and that cultural immersion training undergone by trainees will be taught to the entire department in the future.

In addition, Smith said RPD will train in Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics, a deescalation program developed by the Police Executive Research Forum, beginning this fall.

ICAT was developed in 2015 and first widely used in 2017 in Camden County, N.J. It has also been integrated into training in New York City, Louisville, Washington, D.C., and Boulder, Colo.

A 2020 study into the Louisville police department found that a majority of officers reported they learned new techniques and felt satisfied with the training. It also found that use of force incidents fell by 28.1 percent and that civilian and officer injuries decreased by 26.3 percent and 36 percent, respectively.

While the engagement report gave timelines for both short- and long-term goals, Smith did not say if the department would look closely at dates or meet them in time.

In general, many of the observations and recommendations are similar to the 2021 response to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Executive Order 203: Police Reform and Reinvention Collaboration. It noted a need for different hiring practices, cultural training, and deescalation procedures.

The chief implied that, while the department was compliant with Executive Order 203 by adopting a reform plan, the Community Engagement Report is an extension of that work.

Mazzeo is less impressed.

“Anyone looking at this, from the community side of things, who is engaged or from the policing side, would say, ‘We know all this already. We understand all this, and we’re trying, but how do you get over that hurdle?’ That’s the question I don’t see anyone from the Bureau of Justice Assistance actually answering,” he says, referencing other reports, including the 2021 reform plan, which had similar observations.

“What it comes down to is, it’s going to take more than a couple of people getting together, doing some data research and interviewing some people,” he adds. “Community engagement is one of the biggest challenges to policing across the country and it is going to take an enormous effort to foster better relations.”

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]

3 thoughts on “RPD and the community

  1. While I didn’t read the whole article, let me say this. AT ITS FOUNDATION THE URBAN EDUCATION BREAKDOWN AND ABJECT FAILURE FUELS THE ISSUES. If our kids were educated with a relevant education, if they graduated and were off to the university or certificate program, if they discovered their innate skill or gift, if they just graduated from their K-12 educational journey, the policing would be greatly reduced. If you don’t educate our kids in school, they will get that education on the street. That street education becomes a policing problem. It’s really that basic. Educate today or deal with the uneducated fallout later. Educate now or pay the price later. Today the RCSD/RCSB fails at their mission. This article is, to a large degree, the result of that failing education system.

    • Certainly there are multiple reasons for the challenges that the RPD has faced.
      To start, Josh’s observations above are spot on. It’s important to view the problem with the RCSD/RCSB as a systemic one that has lasted for years, if not decades. Issues ranging from kids not having engaged parents (or role models) to a lack of accountability as well as the administrative disfunction / constant leadership changes, RCSD/RCSB has done little to foster the solutions needed – with the exception of the University of Rochester / East High School partnership which saw significant improvements in nearly all aspects of student performance and behavior. The RCSB has ended that partnership due to “cost” considerations. Unfortunately, the RCSD/RCSB has little accountability until the State steps in to threaten a school closing for underperforming.

      Like turning an oil tanker, this is not resolved instantly. The real tragedy is that it was allowed to happen at all and there is little effort to get on a sustainable path of improvement.

      The Community Engagement Report is of value to point out opportunities in building stronger community relationships however the data is already outdated and, in my opinion. It doesn’t thoroughly analyze the efforts already being made (some of which were instituted after the data in the report). A gross look at the staffing based on a per capita number is wholly inadequate. The staffing needs should be segmented and evaluated against the number and types of calls for service. (administrative vs. street level; community engagement; special operations; and the like). Areas with lower crime rates, less populated geographically or have less “special needs” (think gun crime or KiaBoyz) to address may need a smaller force but the ROC is not in that category.

      Unfortunately, due to lack of public support coupled with the “baby-boomer” generation coming of retirement age, the staffing shortages are real. This is a nationwide problem but a particular one in our community. Police, Fire and EMS are all experiencing significant staffing shortages. When there is high demand to fill positions, potential officers will look at multiple agencies. Many will look at the lack of local (political) support, crime levels and recent line of duty deaths of officers Pierson and Mazurkiewicz and go elsewhere.

      • B. Thompson:

        Right on. That said the RCSB doesn’t care, period. I am convinced that the leadership is incompetent and unwilling to do what is right, let alone to do the right thing.

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