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Rochester Police policy changes and city council reform plans in question

The Rochester Police Department crest
James Brown
The Rochester Police Department crest

A day after Rochester City Council announced its plans for police reform, the Rochester Police Department has released policy changes of its own. 

In a statement from Police Chief Cynthia Herriott’s office Tuesday, the department announced that it updated its mental hygiene detention policy

The department’s handling of mental health calls has been in the spotlight since the death of Daniel Prude became public in September. Prude suffocated in police custody last March, dying a week later. His family called the police because he was having a mental health crisis. 

The policy now requires that officers consider calling the city’s Person in Crisis Team or Monroe County’s Forensic Intervention Team to help de-escalate these interactions. The update includes guidance that says when a person needs to be detained, an officer can restrain them to keep them from escaping or hurting themselves or others. 

Another policy change announced Tuesday requires all officers to use de-escalation techniques in order to get people to follow orders without resistance.

Herriott said more changes to policies on uses of force and juvenile detention can be expected in weeks.

Conor Dwyer Reynolds, executive director of the Police Accountability Board, said Tuesday that these changes were made without consulting the board. He said one of the board’s duties is to examine and recommend changes to policies, and that the department should hold public conversations on its policies prior to making changes.

“It's really hard to know what led to the development of these policies and what evidence or justifications make these things clearly the right thing to do,” said Reynolds. 

Reynolds also weighed in on City Council’s approval of its own police reform plan. It passed in a 5-3 vote Monday. The city was in danger of losing state funding if a police reform plan wasn’t approved by April 1. 

The plan includes timelines to create laws that say police can’t use certain types of restraints that restrict breathing; it also sets goals to change policies on other uses of force, use of tear gas and many other issues.

Reynolds said Rochesterians need more than promises on police reform.

“Non-binding plans without fundamental, really firm commitments – anything that’s just a vision statement – we’re not sure that that will make fundamental changes to policing,” said Reynolds. 

Reynolds said the board is now working with a pro bono law firm with the goal of learning more about the Police Department’s practices, policies and procedures. He's hopeful that the board will be able to afford its own in house counsel in the future. 

The Rochester Police Locust Club’s leadership does not approve of the reform plan, either. 

Mike Mazzeo, the president of the police union, said in a statement that he’s concerned about elected officials without policing experience making reform plans without input from rank-and-file officers or the union. 

“Homicides and violence cannot be stopped by removing and underfunding the police,” Mazzeo said. “If this administration wants to use a data-driven approach, as they have said, the data they should be looking at is 15 homicides -- 10 of them just in March.” 

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.