PAB report scrutinizes RPD’s discipline system

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A new Police Accountability Board oversight investigation examines the Rochester Police Department’s disciplinary practices and points to a number of shortcomings.

The report notes that sustained findings, where departmental investigation concluded that an officer’s conduct amounted to misconduct or misjudgment, have decreased markedly. Among other points, it also states that “many of the RPD’s policies related to discipline are out of date.”

The city’s police disciplinary policy is part of the collective bargaining agreement between the Locust Club, the union representing uniformed RPD officers, and city government. The current contract, renegotiated in January 2023, ends June 30, spurring the PAB’s decision to focus on this topic.

Misconduct violations are determined by RPD’s Professional Standards Section, which outlines conduct and investigation procedures. Final discipline is issued solely by the chief of police for sustained findings of misconduct. Disciplines can include letters of reprimand, suspension, fines, a transfer, completion of a training course, or termination.

“It is the RPD’s position that a variety of factors affect the decision to issue discipline,” the report states. “Each situation is unique, with different circumstances and facts that can all play a factor in their decision. When the decision to discipline officers is left to the discretion of one individual, there are opportunities for biases to overcome facts and fairness.” 

Since the start of available data used in the report, the police department has had 11 different interim and permanent chiefs, most lasting an average of two years at the position.

Misconduct cases fall into several categories: civilian complaints, which originate from outside the department; departmental investigations, which are generally internal or from another city department; and satellite issues, which are complaints uncovered during the investigation process. The first two categories have the greatest detail in PSS records.

A special category the report notes is the option of command discipline. This process is used by other jurisdictions in New York and is considered a less-severe alternative than the formal discipline procedure. Incidents under this category are removed from the offending officer’s record after one year if no other discipline is imposed within that time.

In previous contracts, this option was presented as a way for commanding officers to impose discipline for minor violations of the rules and regulations and general orders of the department. The most recent contract omits the minor qualifier, however, which the report says has the potential to markedly change RPD discipline practices by significantly expanding the number of eligible violations.

Most misconduct reports stem from civilian complaints, the available data indicate. However, as the total number of cases has fallen, the gap between those and departmental investigations has narrowed.

Civilian complaints are also more likely to be deemed unprovable or unfounded.

Departmental investigations, on the other hand, have a greater chance of being deemed sustainable offenses. However, the recent past has notable exceptions to this trend, with 2022 and 2023 reporting 3 and zero total sustained departmental cases in those years. Investigations that resulted in exoneration have proportionally increased in this category since 2019.

Across all complaint origins, nearly 30 percent of all sustained allegations concluded with a memorandum of record, which simply notes the event in an officer’s record. This proportion is even higher for civilian complaints, where 58 percent of all sustained findings received that result. The report notes that RPD internal manuals state memos are not an acceptable form of discipline. 

Letters of reprimand, which are formalized warnings, were also common outcomes, making up 59 percent and 39 percent of all sustained complaints in command discipline and departmental investigations, respectively.

Suspensions accounted for 20 percent and 33 percent of command discipline and departmental investigations outcomes, respectively. Depending on the severity and frequency of the misconduct, suspension lengths can range from three to 60 days, according to the collective bargaining agreement’s discipline matrix. Cases resulting in resignation or termination are relatively rare, with 30 instances across the last two decades. 

Compared with two decades ago, both misconduct reports as a whole and sustained findings have declined sharply. In 2002, there were over 430 completed investigations with 72 sustained findings (16 percent). Twenty-one years later, there were 110 total investigations with only two sustained cases (1.8 percent).

The report suggests this trend relates to a new approach to police discipline. However, this analysis is hampered by gaps in data and limited shared information. For example, the PAB is only notified of investigations that originate from civilian complaints, despite the fact that the Professional Standards Section manual “states that investigations may originate from a variety of sources, including internal complaints submitted through the chain of command.”

“In contrast to the mandate of the City Charter, it is the position of the RPD and the City Law Department that PSS findings and recommendations should not be shared with the PAB,” the report reads.

The report also identifies the need to update the PSS manual (it was last done so in February 2014) and bring command discipline actions into consistent adherence with RPD’s policies and adopting progressive discipline models, which the current record-erasing policy prevents.

It also notes a lack of cooperation from the RPD, a consistent PAB theme.

“The RPD effectively limited the scope of this oversight investigation by refusing to answer questions about decision making in issuing discipline unless they could review a draft of this completed oversight investigation,” the report concludes.

“That 22-minute presentation probably represents something like 2,000 hours worth of work,” PAB chair Larry Knox said, commending a presentation of the report at a recent board meeting. “To see the questions we’re asking, what is answered and unanswered, really shows what we’re doing to work with the community, work with the city, work with RPD to improve and answer these valid questions.”

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]

One thought on “PAB report scrutinizes RPD’s discipline system

  1. After reading this article, I watched the last PAB meeting available on the PAB website. It was interesting. About 40 minutes into the meeting members readily admit that the RPD Chief’s Advisory Committee performs the same function as they do. (Reference comments at about 40 minutes into the meeting.) It begs the question why two such committees exist and the cost benefits of each. The PAB report referred to in the article concedes it does not possess all the data that the RPD has and that is also clear during the board meeting. In the end the report does little more than summarize limited data, concluding that some policies should be updated, (what organization doesn’t have policies that need updating on occasion?).

    It’s interesting to note that the number of sustained complaints over this 18 year period were down and it’s interpreted as if that’s a problem. With more emphasis on professionalism, better and more relevant training, along with community outreach, reducing the number of sustained complaints should be the goal. Furthermore, that a Memorandum of Record is described as simply a note in the file is not completely accurate. A Memorandum of Record can effect promotions, transfers, careers, and serve as a foundation for progressive discipline.

    The last 30 minutes of the meeting were spent in executive session, usually reserved for internal personnel issues. It’s not clear what this says about the conflict between transparency, PAB employee rights, and the PAB’s efforts to challenge the same of others.

    When the initiative to establish a PAB in Rochester was underway the two examples put forth were the PABs in Syracuse, NY and Oakland, California. The Syracuse PAB has recently been taken over by Common Council due to its ineffectiveness. It has been long dogged by an inability to get board members or hire staff. These issues also face the Rochester PAB. The Rochester board during the last meeting laments the failure to get applicants for open positions. The Oakland PAB has been embroiled in a power struggle with equally dubious value as Syracuse.

    Considering all this and that the courts have determined the PAB has no power, that it has cost millions of dollars, with an annual budget in the millions, has suffered internal turmoil, and is duplicative of another committee, what is the rationale of continuing to spend millions more on this experiment?

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