RPD fosters ‘culture of brutality and impunity,’ federal lawsuit alleges
Officers with the Rochester Police Department brutalized protesters, lawyers, and innocent bystanders during Black Lives Matter protests in September, according to a federal lawsuit filed in the United States Western New York District Court.
The complaint was filed Monday on behalf of several key players in Rochester’s recent protest movement, including the organizing group Free the People Roc, organizers Anthony Hall and Stanley Martin, and the National Lawyers’ Guild of Rochester, which provided legal services during the protests in the summer and fall of 2020.
The suit alleges the Rochester Police Department used extreme force in responding to protests, and the use of crowd control measures falls into a long history of the department abusing its power.
“The city, in keeping with its long history, responded with the use of extreme violence and militarized police tactics — including deploying batons, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, armored vehicles, and police dogs — to intimidate the protesters,” the complaint reads. “Over the course of just three days Rochester Police Department officers severely injured hundreds of protesters.”
The complaint alleges that the tactics used by the police during the protests were an extension of a “culture of violent, racialized policing” that has been cultivated over decades and emboldened by a “sham” of an internal investigation process, done through the Professional Standards Section, which “utterly fails to discipline officers who have engaged in abuses.”
In a statement responding to the lawsuit, city spokesperson Justin Roj noted that the Rochester Police Department recently adopted a revised protest plan meant to "ensure a proportional and just response to community actions.”
In a news conference Monday afternoon, plaintiffs said the ultimate goal of the lawsuit is to instill real, systemic change in the Rochester Police Department.
"We will not be moved because we know what we're owed, we know what we deserve, and we know what's been stolen from us," Martin said. "For too long, our lives, our humanity, and our freedoms have been stolen. We've seen the way our city government has evaded responsibility and failed to take accountability for their actions."
What exactly that reform would look like, or what sets the lawsuit apart from previous attempts to instill change, is not entirely clear. Joshua Moskovitz, one of the four attorney's representing the class action suit, said the wide-range of history cited in the filing gives a complete picture for the court to make decisions upon.
"This case brings history to bear, when you read the complaint, and you see what's going on in Rochester, and when you see what department's done and what it hasn't done in attempting to address these instances, this case stands apart," Moskovitz said. "We're asking for the court to consider that context and that history when we talk about reform. It can't be lip service, and it can't be half measures."
The suit, first reported by the Democrat & Chronicle, names as defendants city and county officials, including Mayor Lovely Warren and interim-Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, as well as County Executive Adam Bello and Sheriff Todd Baxter, among others.
The plaintiffs are being represented by three other attorneys besides Moskovitz, including Don Thompson and Elliot Shields, who had previously served as counsel for the family of Daniel Prude, and Katie McCarthy of Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP.
The suit focuses specifically on the police response to protests surrounding Prude’s death between Sept. 2 and Sept. 5, and injuries suffered by protesters, lawyers, and other bystanders. It notes that while New York City was experiencing similar protests over the summer, PepperBalls were not used by the NYPD.
In Rochester, the department reportedly fired 6,100 PepperBalls during just four days of protest. One officer was noted as having fired 148 PepperBall rounds in the course of 20 minutes on Sept. 4, according to the suit.
“While hundreds of peaceful protesters, many of them Black and brown, were injured by RPD’s violent response to the demonstrations, the Department condoned its officers’ actions,” the complaint reads. “Former-Chief (La’Ron Singletary) stated that RPD officers ‘showed restraint’ on a day that many peaceful demonstrators, including elected officials, were shot with pepper balls, pepper sprayed, and worse.”
Along with the protest response, the suit takes aim at the department’s record-keeping. According to the suit, the city has released just three minutes of footage of the night of Sept. 4, when protesters were “kettled” onto the Court Street bridge and faced a barrage of PepperBalls and tear gas.
“The city has indicated the rest of the footage was destroyed — despite the preservation letter and their own retention policies,” the suit reads.
While the lawsuit focuses specifically on the actions of the department during September’s protests, it argues those responses are part of a decades-spanning history of systemic issues with the department, which ultimately have led to injuries and death. More than 50 incidents of alleged police brutality are cited in the document.
Among the names cited are Denise Hawkins, who was shot dead by officer Michael Leach in 1975, and Alecia McCuller, who was killed by officer Thomas Whitmore in 1983. McCuller and Leach’s deaths sparked pushes for reform, but, the suit argues, little change can be seen in the department.
“To this day, city and RPD officials have not taken any meaningful action to curb these abuses and continue to foster a culture of racism and brutality within the department by failing to train, supervise, and discipline officers who use unlawful force against Black and brown people. Instead, time and again, the department grants these officers awards and promotes them,” the suit reads.
The lawsuit makes 10 demands of the court, including a federal monitor for the Rochester Police Department, financial compensation for the plaintiffs, and a declaration that the department’s protest tactics are unconstitutional.
The lawyers made the same request of a federal monitor for the Police Department in their original lawsuit brought on behalf of the Prude family.
“Mayor Warren welcomes a review by the United States Department of Justice," read the statement from Roj. "In fact, in September of last year, Mayor Warren formally called upon them to conduct a thorough investigation of the Rochester Police Department and to offer reforms to address any and all civil rights violations that might be found."
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or firstname.lastname@example.org.