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Activists decry city’s plan to hire law firm for review of RPD

Gino Fanelli/CITY file photo
Members of the Police Accountability Board Alliance and organizers with Free the People Roc gather Monday in front of City Hall to speak out against the proposal.

Activists have called for the city to scrap its plan to hire a law firm to review Rochester Police Department policies, procedures, and training.

City Council will vote on Tuesday whether to hire the firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr — WilmerHale for short — to perform an in-depth analysis of RPD policies, procedures, and practices related to use of force, de-escalation, body-worn cameras, and how officers respond to mental health-related calls for assistance. The Washington-based firm would be paid $250,000 for the work, with the money coming from federal forfeiture funds.
On Monday, members of the Police Accountability Board Alliance and organizers with Free the People Roc gathered in front of City Hall to speak out against the proposal. They said that the city’s hiring of WilmerHale would undermine the Police Accountability Board, which the city has explicitly charged with reviewing and assessing RPD practices, policies, and procedures.

“The board is actually structured in a way that it could do the work WilmerHale is being contracted for,” said Ted Forsyth of the Alliance. “Instead of paying people on the board to do this job, they’d rather go outside for it.”

City officials intended for the WilmerHale review to meet the requirements of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order requiring all local governments with police departments to perform a comprehensive review of policy and procedure, and create an improvement plan by April 2021. Cuomo issued the order after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

WilmerHale has conducted reviews of several police departments. The city of Chicago shelled out $2.7 million to WilmerHale — a rate of about $1,200 per hour — for legal consultation after the 2015 police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

Likewise, Baltimore paid the firm $1.2 million to provide legal assistance during a U.S. Department of Justice probe that followed Freddie Gray’s death while in police custody. The firm aided the city in establishing a consent decree between the DOJ and the Baltimore Police Department. Under the settlement, the department agreed to changes in policy and procedure, including a shift to a community-oriented model of policing and increased emphasis on de-escalation.

A Sept. 30 report from the decree monitoring team, an independent agent of the federal court, said that the Baltimore Police Department was on track with most provisions of the decree. However, the report also noted that it wasn’t clear whether the reforms were actually having an impact on day-to-day officer conduct.

The report said the department was still falling short in the areas of misconduct complaints and the establishment of a community-policing model.

“The Consent Decree will not be a success unless and until BPD establishes a robust culture of accountability,” the report reads.

Councilmember Mary Lupien said she plans to vote no on the legislation to hire WilmerHale.

“It seems like their work has primarily been in defending against Department of Justice investigations,” Lupien said. “They haven’t done a whole lot of police reform. They did negotiate the consent decree in Baltimore, but that was 2016. Does it line up with what we need now?”

The Alliance, in a statement, said in order for any review of policy to serve the will of the community, the Police Accountability Board needs to have a central role.

“With the PAB so close to being up and running, why undermine its democratically agreed upon duty to review and revise RPD policy?” the statement reads. “If there is a need for outside legal counsel for an RPD investigation, the PAB is more than capable to make that decision for themselves.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or