The New York State Bar Association Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform will hold the first of three public forums from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. today.
The first forum is focusing 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 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 Warren fired the police chief, and the rest 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, will be the keynote speaker. He has advocated for overhauling police practices for several decades, launching the Coalition for Police Reform through the ministry.
Panelists include Robert Brown, who founded his own law practice, the Offices of Robert E. Brown, in 2006, and previously worked for the international firm of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson. Prior to his law career, he was an NYPD police captain in Chinatown where he supervised nearly 200 police officers. As an expert on the use of force and other police practices, Brown has been a legal analyst for broadcast outlets including CNN, NBC, CBS, ABC and FOX. He has also been quoted in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, New York Post and New York Daily News. He is also a member of the NYSBA task force on racial injustice.
Willie Lightfoot, vice president of the Rochester City Council, chairs the council’s public safety committee, which is investigating Prude’s death. He is the founder of the Cut the Violence Initiative, which helps curb teen violence in the Rochester area, and a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force, serving in both Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Panelist Rachel Barnhart is a Monroe County legislator who has championed good government, transparency, accountability and ethics. At a protest against Prude’s death, she was hit in the head by pepper balls fired by police. Before switching to public relations, she was a broadcast journalist for 18 years, covering Rochester Police and other aspects of the city.
Panelist Mary Lupien, a former community activist, is a Rochester City Councilmember who has taken on police accountability, institutional racism and affordable housing. She was also hit by pepper balls during a protest. At recent press conferences, Barnhart and Lupien have called for major police reform and a federal investigation into Prude’s death.
Also on the panel is Adam Fryer who has advocated on behalf of New York residents who have severe mental illness or 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.
Panelist Frank Liberti is the president and chief executive officer of the Center for Dispute Settlement in Rochester, an independent non-profit that advocates for resolving conflicts without litigation. It provides civilian oversight to the Rochester Police Department.
Danielle Ponder, who is also on the panel, is a 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 George Floyd. She is the special public defender in charge of diversity and inclusion and char of the hiring committee.
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 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, is moderating the discussion along with Liz Benjamin, managing director of the Albany office of Marathon Strategies.
The task force is also soliciting written testimony in advance of the public forums. The other two forums are from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 30 and TBA.
To register for any of the forums or to find out more information about the task force, go to www.nysba.org/racialinjustice.
Comments or testimony must be submitted to [email protected] in advance of each hearing date.