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PAB lawyers up to help gain access to RPD documents

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Gino Fanelli/CITY file photo
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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.

The Rochester Police Accountability Board has retained a New York City law firm in an effort to ensure the Rochester Police Department complies with the board’s requests for information during investigations.

The firm, Shearman and Sterling, is representing the board on a pro bono basis.

In the past couple of months, the Police Accountability Board has launched several investigations into the department. Among them are the use of crowd control measures during Black Lives Matter protests, as well as two incidents involving children, one where an officer pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old and one where officers tackled and pepper-sprayed a woman while her 3-year-old was nearby.

The board has said the department has consistently failed to provide requested training manuals, incident reports, and other documentation needed for investigations.

“This month, an independent investigation revealed that City officials spent much of last year suppressing crucial information about our police department,” Board Chair Shani Wilson said in a statement. “We cannot allow history to repeat itself. The law is clear: the City must fully cooperate with our investigations. Refusing to do so is unacceptable.”

The board hired the firm in response to the findings of City Council's investigation into the handling of information around Daniel Prude's death at the hands of Rochester police officers. A report from Andrew Celli, the attorney City Council hired to conduct the probe, concluded that top city and police officials suppressed information about Prude's death.

“The Daniel Prude investigation is showing that officials have suppressed information about police misconduct, so we need our own outside lawyers not connected to anyone here to make sure the city does the right thing,” said Conor Dwyer Reynolds, the PAB's executive director.

Prude first encountered officers with the department on March 23, 2020, became unresponsive during a restraint, and subsequently died on March 30. News of his death went public on Sept. 2 after the release of body-worn camera footage of his arrest.

Shearman and Sterling will be providing pro bono representation to the board. The firm is also providing pro bono representation to the New York Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the Rochester Police Department. The organization claims the department failed to respond to Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for police misconduct documents.

“The fate of police reform hinges on the success of organizations like the PAB. We look forward to ensuring that City officials understand the law and fully cooperate with the PAB’s efforts to make Rochester’s public safety system equitable, fair, and transparent,” said Philip Urosky, a partner at the firm.

According to the Rochester city charter, the Police Accountability Board has “the power to use subpoenas to compel testimony and the production of evidence, and the power to discipline RPD officers if a complaint of misconduct is sustained.”

The Rochester Police Locust Club sued the city over the board’s creation and powers. In May 2020, state Supreme Court Justice John Ark issued a ruling that stripped the board of its power to investigate and discipline individual officers. But the decision allowed the board to perform any function granted to it under the law if it doesn’t involve disciplining officers.

“This is a pretty major step for the PAB, and is kind of to let people know that we’re not going to let the problems of the past continue,” Reynolds said.

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