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Rochester Police Advisory Board investigating police response to protests

Max Schulte / CITY / WXXI
Police converge on Rochester City Hall on Sept. 16, 2020 in response to demonstrators "occupying" the exterior of the building.

The Rochester Police Accountability Board announced Tuesday that it is launching its first formal investigation, targeting the Rochester Police Department’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests of last year.

The board is looking to evaluate RPD’s current policy on crowd control and how force was utilized in the protests, as well as past crowd control efforts at events like the Puerto Rican Festival.

Board members anticipated conducting interviews and reviewing written testimony from RPD and community members through at least March. The board expects to eventually recommend potential policy changes to the department.

Rabbi Drorah Setel, a PAB board member, said evaluating protest response hits a number of issues of interest to the board.

“Protest actually involves a lot of other topics; use of force, community relations, disparate treatment,” Setel said during a City Council meeting. “There's a whole variety of other things that we look into by virtue of looking into protests.”

The investigation will not look at specific incidents of officer misconduct, nor attempt to discipline officers. The board’s disciplinary powers are still hamstrung by a protracted legal battle between Council and the Rochester Police Locust Club.

The PAB is specifically seeking information on use of various crowd control devices, including PepperBalls, tear gas and long-range acoustic devices (LRADs), which were all prominently used during the protests. For example, the RPD reportedly deployed 6,100 PepperBalls in the first three days of protests surrounding the death of Daniel Prude, beginning Sept. 2.

Board member Robert Harrison said the board’s concern over the use of PepperBalls hinged on the projectile’s potential to maim or kill.

"If you get shot in the face in the face with a PepperBall, it does more than sting,” Harrison said.

In January, the PAB submitted its input on a city police reform plan mandated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Among its recommendations was banning tear gas and LRADs outright, and considering on a case-by-case basis which “less-than-lethal” weapons should also be banned.

Credit Jacob Walsh
Police Accountability Board Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds (l) and Board Chair Shani Wilson.

The PAB is one of four organizations submitting input on the plan, alongside RPD, United Christian Leadership Ministries and the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE).

Board member Arlene Brown said the need to evaluate RPD’s crowd control tactics is a matter of urgency.

“We thought about the odds that there will be more protests in the coming weeks and months,” Brown said. “This issue isn’t going away. In fact, it’s likely to grow more pressing. We need to understand, and change, the way RPD deals with demonstrations.”

The board is also recommending that officers who refuse to comply with inquiries be removed from their positions. The board currently does not have the authority to compel officers to be fired, however.

In a statement, city Communications Director Justin Roj said the city and department will comply entirely with the investigation.

"The Police Accountability Board was established for the purpose of providing an independent review of police matters and conduct," Roj said. "Any review into such matters are aligned with their purpose and our police department will work with them to ensure they have the information they need.”

Board members are scheduled to meet with RPD Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan on Feb. 11 to discuss the oversight investigation.

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