Panelists Call for Police Overhaul at NYSBA’s First Racial Injustice Forum

By Christian Nolan

Andrew Brown and Liz Benjamin

When it comes to racial injustice and police misconduct and brutality, Rochester City Councilman Willie Lightfoot thinks reform is no longer the answer. Instead, he’s looking for an “overhaul.”

“We’ve had reforms in the past and they’ve just seemed to not work,” said Lightfoot who is vice president of the City Council and chairs its public safety committee.

Lightfoot said government officials are “getting ready to have conversations about how we can look at our system and have an overhaul of our entire Rochester Police Department system and their policy, practices and procedures.”

Lightfoot’s remarks came Tuesday, Sept. 22, as part of the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform’s first public forum. The mission of the task force is to understand the issues leading to police brutality and to provide recommendations to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary to end deleterious policing practices that disproportionately impact persons of color.

The two-hour virtual forum – the first of three such scheduled events (the other two will be Sept. 30 and TBA) – focused on Rochester in response to the death of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill Black man who died of suffocation in March after police officers placed his head in a hood and pressed his face into the pavement. His death, which preceded the suffocation death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, was not disclosed to the public for five months, sparking widespread protests and condemnation.

After video footage of the police encounter was released, Rochester Mayor Lovely Ann Warren fired the police chief, and many of the department’s highest-ranking officers either resigned or were demoted.

Rev. Lewis Stewart, a longtime civil rights activist in Rochester and president of the United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York through which he launched the Coalition for Police Reform, delivered the keynote speech at the event.

“The need for justice and police reform must emanate from the federal government,” said Stewart. “There needs to be national standards for policing for all 18,000 police agencies in America.

“Now is the time for the communities and municipalities to shift to a new re-envisioned model of policing,” continued Stewart. “Policing which is non-racist, policing which will treat all individuals mainly with respect, policing which protects the civil and human rights of all, policing which disregards race, policing that is transparent and accountable, and policing that will dismantle an archaic and racist police culture…”

Stewart credits smart phones for raising awareness to a problem that’s always existed.

“It was the camera and people’s personal cameras with the video recording in it that began to highlight and show what’s taking place in our cities between residents and police,” said Stewart. “Body worn cams and the cameras that people carry made a difference in showing the disparity in how police treat black people.”

Lightfoot agreed, noting that the evidence allows the current generation of Black Lives Matter protesters to not be afraid to speak up and hold truth to power.

“Now they have the proof,” said Lightfoot. “So before others were fed up but they had no proof. They had no evidence. They had nothing to back them up. Now… they’re saying ‘Look, here it is…How can you deny the facts in front of your face and so that is very powerful.”

Panelist Rachel Barnhart, a Monroe County legislator who has championed good government, transparency, accountability and ethics, spoke about her experience at a Rochester protest against Prude’s death on Sept. 5 where she was hit in the head by pepper balls fired by police. She said she suffered a concussion and did not feel well for over a week. She believes the officers knew who she was.

“I don’t know who was in charge,” said Barnhart. “I don’t know who did that order. I don’t know if they were targeting us. I don’t know what agencies

“…I’m a privileged person. I’m a very well-known person in Rochester,” continued Barnhart. “I’m a white woman and an elected official. If you’re going to fire on me what the hell else are you doing?

She said many injuries were reported including the loss of eyes. She said police know how to de-escalate tensions so the fact it was not done in that situation shows there are serious problems that go beyond just the police.

Panelist Mary Lupien, a Rochester City Councilmember who was with Barnhart at the protest and was also hit by pepper balls, has taken on police accountability, institutional racism and affordable housing. As a former community activist, Lupien moved to a lower income Rochester neighborhood and said she witnessed institutional racism firsthand in how they treated residents there, not unlike the way they treated Prude.

“It’s how the police talked to me about my neighborhood. How could you live there? As if it’s not a wonderful place to live, which is it,” said Lupien. “They come in as if it were a war zone and that my neighbors are the enemy.”

Attorney Robert Brown, formerly a police captain with the New York Police Department where he supervised nearly 200 officers, supports residency requirements for police officers to live in the communities they work in. For instance, he pointed to Buffalo’s former policy requiring that officers live in the city for the first seven years that they work there. Brown, a member of NYSBA’s task force, said it leads to a good relationship with the community that the officers serve.

Buffalo police, however, were against the policy and it was removed in the Police Benevolent Association’s most recent contract. In response to the George Floyd killing, the debate of residency requirements has resurfaced there as well as with state lawmakers in Albany.

Danielle Ponder, a Monroe County public defender and local activist who has played a visible and outspoken role in the protests against police treatment of Prude and Floyd, supports defunding of the police.

“What we’re looking for is a radical overhaul of how we respond to public safety,” said Ponder who is the special public defender in charge of diversity and inclusion and char of the hiring committee. “I truly believe there are two things you have to do – you either have to disband the police department because the collective bargaining agreements and the contracts leave you in a place as a citizen where you are disempowered and beholden to this agency or you have to disempower this agency through their pocket books.”

Also on the panel was Adam Fryer who spoke about his personal experience advocating on behalf of New York residents who have severe mental illness, developmental disabilities or have been negatively affected by the criminal justice system. He worked with community organizers in Geneva, N.Y., his hometown, on peaceful protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Rounding out the panel in providing firsthand experiences was Frank Liberti, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Dispute Settlement in Rochester, an independent non-profit that advocates for resolving conflicts without litigation. The organization provides civilian oversight to the Rochester Police Department.

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. Brown, vice chancellor of the New York State Education Department’s Board of Regents, moderated the discussion along with Liz Benjamin, managing director of the Albany office of Marathon Strategies.

Click here to register for the next forum on Wednesday, Sept. 30.

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