Police Chief Cynthia Harriott-Sullivan is the first woman to serve as chief of the Rochester Police Department in its 200-year history. When it comes to law enforcement in America, Harriott-Sullivan says it has gone “over the cliff.”
“Currently we’re in just a very intense situation when it comes to law enforcement around the country,” said Harriott-Sullivan. “The situation we find ourselves in… was pending for some time…it sort of felt like you’re telling a family member, ‘Hey, watch out. You’re getting too close to the cliff and you’re going to go over if you don’t pay attention.’ And that’s where I feel we are right now. We’ve gone over the cliff and now we need to scramble and get ourselves right, and by that I mean law enforcement around the country…”
Her comments came during the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform’s third public forum on Dec. 7. The mission of the task force is to understand the issues leading to police misconduct and to 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. They moderated the two-hour virtual forum, which provided members of the law enforcement community with an opportunity to discuss the unique challenges they face amid ongoing debate over racial injustice and police reform proposals.
Harriott-Sullivan was the keynote speaker. She is the second Black woman in the department’s history to achieve the rank of lieutenant in 2000 and has served for over 20 years, previously retiring from the department in 2009 before returning to take her current role.
The other panelists were Assistant Chief Ruben Beltran, of the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) Patrol Borough, Queens South; Ernie Hart, NYPD’s deputy commissioner of legal matters; and Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple.
In the summer, Rochester was rocked by revelations regarding the death of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill Black man who died of suffocation in March after police officers placed his head in a “spit hood” and pressed his face into the pavement. His death was not disclosed to the public for five months, sparking widespread protests and condemnation. After video footage of the encounter was released, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren fired the police chief and the rest of the department’s highest-ranking officers either resigned or were demoted.
Harriott-Sullivan said her goal was to bring strong, effective leadership to get things back on track.
“It really does start at the top, that I have to set the tone,” said Harriott-Sullivan. “I have to ensure that people understand what my values are and then I have to be consistent about that. So that’s been my goal because certainly one of the biggest ways to steady the department is to put competent leadership in place.”
Ankit Kapoor, a former police officer with the NYPD and a member of the task force’s Committee on Recruitment, Training and Monitoring, said interactions with individuals who may be armed and have mental illnesses are extremely tough situations to be in as police officers because the situation can change “in a matter of a microsecond.” He then asked about emergency calls for mentally ill people in crisis and potential reforms where a non-violent response team handles the call rather than police.
Hart, formerly a judge with the New York State Supreme Court, civil term, and assistant district attorney, said the NYPD is working on that issue and discussing it with the Mayor’s Office.
“We’re taking a comprehensive look at everything so that when we do do it, it’s workable and everybody will stay safe,” said Hart. “Not only the people who have mental health issues, but the practitioners, whether it’s a social worker, whether it’s the police, whether it’s EMS, whatever. I mean, the whole idea of this process is not only to keep people who have mental health issues safe, but also everybody responding has to be safe as well.”
Assistant Chief Beltran, a 34-year veteran of the NYPD, discussed reforms with community policing.
“It’s really focusing our resources into making sure that police officers know their community, that community knows their police officers, having built the block meetings to talk about issues within that community and making sure that the department as an organization is shifting resources to properly address the needs of the community and that we’re policing them in the way that they expect to be policed and they want to be policed,” said Beltran.
Beltran, who previously served as the commanding officer of the school safety division, said a recent addition to neighborhood policing has been the youth coordination officer program to work with young people to make sure that police can refer them for the right services and keep them from a life of crime.
Apple, Albany County sheriff, said his department has implemented a lot of reforms over the past ten years to build trust in the community such as police vehicle and body cameras. Body cameras are being implemented in the correctional setting and in the future for EMS as well.
Apple said his office also changed its police training and eliminated its longtime police academy.
“We broke away because it seemed that we were in a situation where the academy didn’t want to change and we desperately wanted to change,” Apple explained. “So, we started our own academy. We call it the Sheriff’s Public Safety Institute, and we kept it as an institute instead of a law enforcement academy because we do fire training, dispatching training, paramedic training, and so on.”
He noted that law professors from Albany Law School teach the law courses at the institute rather than a police officer who received quick training on a topic. Apple said it’s been successful so far and he’s hopeful the newer generation of police officers will be more educated as they roll “into our vision of policing” in Albany County.
To view all three virtual forums or to find out more information about the task force, go to www.nysba.org/racialinjustice.