Can Rochester’s New Police Accountability Board Become a National Model?

By Christian Nolan

Can Rochester’s New Police Accountability Board Become a National Model?

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Rochester native Conor Dwyer Reynolds is the first executive director of Rochester’s new Police Accountability Board. Reynolds, a Yale Law School lecturer and just 30 years old when confirmed to the position late last year by the City Council, was a featured panelist during the Annual Meeting program of NYSBA’s Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform.

The webinar, which had over 300 attendees Jan. 25, examined civilian review boards and the police, and discussed what works and what doesn’t.

“Policing is a tool to keep everybody safe and if we have the right expertise from ordinary people to make sure they do the right job, then I think it’s worth every dollar that we put into community oversight,” said Reynolds, who worked in the Obama Administration prior to attending law school. “And of course, we need to listen to the lived experience of officers, but we have to make sure that every part of government does the people’s work, and that’s my greatest hope for civilian review in the eyes of community control.”

Reynolds is co-chair of the task force’s Civilian Review Board Committee along with Monroe County Public Defender Tim Donaher. The committee has been examining the relevance and impact of community oversight and civilian review boards.

Reynolds’ presentation explained which types of review boards are weak, which are strong, and then detailed Rochester’s plan.

For instance, Reynolds explained that weaker civilian review boards are either overseen by the police department or include police on the board; only provide input on discipline or policies; and have minimal funding. Whereas stronger review boards avoid politics; have no police on the boards or allow mayoral appointments to the board; have the ability to impose discipline and enforce policies, which Reynolds admits is rare; and have a full funding mandate in order to execute all of their powers.

When it comes to funding, Reynolds noted that in Oakland, Ca., civilian oversight spending is $5,000 per officer but is closer to $500 per officer in Rochester and Albany, and just $75 in Newburgh.

Rochester Police Accountability Board

The board was created last year after a referendum passed by 75 percent of voters, and replaced the city’s old system of civilian review that was not as community controlled.

In the new structure, members and staff cannot have law enforcement ties; must form an alliance with active community groups who will be part of their rulemaking process, help nominate members, and make recommended policy changes.

“That’s a powerful tool ensuring we are responsive to the community and that we are independent,” said Reynolds.

There is also a diversity mandate, as the board and its staff must reflect the diversity of the city of Rochester.

The board’s core mission is to “… ensure public accountability and transparency over the powers exercised by sworn officers of the Rochester Police Department.”

To achieve this, the board has the power to create a comprehensive justice system for police wrongdoing and may unilaterally investigate wrongdoing. The board does not have to wait for a complaint or the City Council’s authority. It has unilateral subpoena power and can conduct a full-scale trial.

In order to meet its mission of transparency, board members may look at everything the police department does and make sure the public has a complete understanding of what police are doing on their behalf. This includes releasing data and body worn camera footage.

“These are legal duties, not options. We have to do this stuff,” said Reynolds.

However, the police union for the Rochester Police Department has challenged the board’s powers and last spring, a state Supreme Court justice said the board does not have the power to discipline officers or hold hearings on disciplinary matters (similar to the lack of power held by the city’s previous review board.) The City Council has appealed the ruling, and a decision is expected this year.

In the meantime, Reynolds said the board is busy making sure Rochester adheres to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requiring cities to reinvent their policing policies, as every department statewide must submit a new plan by April 1 or risk losing funding.

A ‘National Model’?

Mina Q. Malik, a Harvard Law School lecturer and a former deputy attorney in the Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia, moderated the webinar. She also previously served as the executive director of the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Malik said she’s hopeful for Reynolds that the Rochester board can become “the national model” for a police accountability agency.

Also presenting at the webinar were Ava Ayers, director of the Government Law Center at Albany Law School, and Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel in the Advocacy Department, New York Civil Liberties Union. Both serve as members of the task force’s Civilian Review Board Committee.

The mission of NYSBA’s Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform is to understand the issues that contribute to police misconduct and provide recommendations to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary to end deleterious policing practices that disproportionately impact persons of color.

The task force is chaired by NYSBA President-Elect T. Andrew Brown and Taa Grays, a former association vice president from the first judicial district.

 

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