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Panelists call for change during discussion on racial disparities in Rochester

Host Norma Holland and the five panelists in the WXXI Live Forum Thursday night examining racial disparities in the Rochester area.
Host Norma Holland and the five panelists in the WXXI Live Forum Thursday night examining racial disparities in the Rochester area.

Racial disparities in Rochester, which have been highlighted by issues surrounding the death of Daniel Prude, was the topic of a live forum broadcast on WXXI-TV and radio on Thursday night as well as online at

A panel that included people from the health care, criminal justice and mental health counseling fields talked about a number of problems they see impeding real progress right now for people of color in Rochester.

Discussion has been spurred by the death of Prude in March, who suffocated when police pinned him to the ground after Prude’s brother told officers Daniel  had a mental health crisis. He died a week later. That incident only came to light recently, and it has spurred protests locally and calls for systemic change.

Dr. Janice Harbin, president and CEO of the Anthony L. Jordan Health Center in Rochester noted that people living in poverty often have a shorter lifespan.

“We know that the zip codes that we serve, so the zip codes that Jordan serves, we have as much as 18 years of life lost, just based on the zip code that some of our patients live in. That’s something that would not be tolerated anyplace else,” Harbin said.

Marvin Stepherson is a retired RPD sergeant and an adjunct professor of criminal justice. He said that reform is needed in the police department, but that will mean some structural changes.

“Looking at the mindset, going from the warrior mindset to the guardian mindset, we have to start a restructuring from the mindset so that when we implement training, it’s effective,” Stepherson said.

Some of the panelists also questioned  current city leadership and found problems with how officials have handled the release of information about the Daniel Prude case.

Natalie Ann Knott is an assistant public defender in Monroe County, and said she backs calls by activists for top city leaders to resign. Considering how serious a failure this is on all levels of city government, from the police to the mayor’s office, I think the resignation demands are essential. I think we have lost trust in this government,” Knott said.

Simeon Bannister is vice president of community programs at the Rochester Area Community Foundation, and a member of the Greater Rochester Black Agenda Group. He talked about the move out of the city into the suburbs by white residents in the 60s, 70s and 80s.

“The white flight was accompanied by, frankly a lot of the economic resources. And so what we ended up with is a city that is concentrated poverty, organized by race and if we don’t deal with that very stark fact, than I can’t see how we make meaningful headway,” Bannister said.

Dr. April Aycock is a mental health counselor in Rochester. She said there needs to be a more diverse pool of health providers in the city.

“When you talk about these issues, people become defensive; so if you have more black and brown people in these positions, then you’re able to have these conversations and people don’t have to be afraid to talk about what is going on,” Aycock noted.

Randy Gorbman is WXXI's director of news and public affairs. Randy manages the day-to-day operations of WXXI News on radio, television, and online.