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Defunding the Rochester police discussed at community forum

James Brown

Rev. Lewis Stewart and the United Christian Leadership Ministry were joined by more than a dozen community leaders for a solutions-focused discussion on police reform and community relations Thursday night. Roughly 50 people were on hand for the discussion at First Church of God on Clarissa Street.

The forum included members of law enforcement such as Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, activists from Rochester’s local Black Lives Matter movement, Rochester City Council and others.

Stewart said there have been steps forward on the legal side of the issues including a recent executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo requiring outside investigators to look into incidents when police kill people. But, he says it should be beefed up.

“We would like to have that expanded so that independent investigators look into incidents of police excessive force,” Stewart said.

Audience questions for the panel included what roles should churches play in police reform, increasing accountability inside police departments, and whether officers should be required to live where they serve.  

A question posed to Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary asked whether the police union should play a role in reform efforts like defunding the department. Some activists have called for a 50% cut to Rochester Police. Singletary said the union doesn’t need to be involved with those decisions. 

“I don’t think that’s even a union issue,” said Singletary. “That's just more of a budgetary management issue because 90% of the department is personnel costs.”

Stewart said that Police Union President Mike Mazzeo backed out of an appearance after learning that he had conflicts with some members of the panel.

The department’s budget was cut by about 4% for the fiscal year that began in July due to the city’s budget crunch. City Council President Loretta Scott said council is discussing reallocating part of the department’s $93 million budget toward mental health calls. 

“We would try to find ways to support those gaps in services that have undermined over the years particularly in the area of mental health,” said Scott.

Scott said police answer many mental health calls and the council is looking into other ways to handle them but warned that social workers or counselors answering these kinds of calls on their own is not likely.

“You’re not going to get a social worker to be the first one to show up,” said Scott. In as much as there are places where you can’t get a parking ticket unless there’s a police officer is sorta there to protect them, it's the same thing with mental health calls.”

Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot made it clear to the crowd, that included Board of Education Commissioner Natalie Sheppard, that he’ll be against any of those funds going to Rochester City Schools.

“If I ask nine different people, offline, in this room, I’m going to get nine different answers on how to allocate that money. Right? That becomes the problem. Some people say give it to the school district, I ain’t giving a dime to the school district, I’m sorry you ain’t getting a dime from me,” said Lightfoot. “That’s off the table, immediately.”

He said he hopes some of the answers to restructuring the department are revealed in the RASE commission, whose goal is to identify structural racism within city and Monroe County government and offer recommendations on changing protocols, priorities and perhaps laws to prevent it.

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.