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Police Accountability Board case heads to New York’s top court

Gino Fanelli/CITY file photo
Members of the Police Accountability Board Alliance and organizers with Free the People Roc gather in front of City Hall at an earlier event.

The state’s highest court has agreed to hear Rochester City Council’s appeal of lower court rulings that stripped the Police Accountability Board of its disciplinary powers.

For the city to be granted the opportunity is somewhat unusual, given the circumstances behind the case. Previously, Supreme Court Justice John Ark ruled that the board’s disciplinary function violated provisions of the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the Rochester police officers’ union. The Rochester Police Locust Club filed the original lawsuit challenging the powers of the Police Accountability Board.

The state Court of Appeals, which will now hear the case, was under no obligation to do so and often does not take up cases where a higher court upholds a lower court’s ruling. Typically, it takes up cases where there are conflicts between lower court rulings that present some sort of legal question or controversy. In the PAB case, an Appellate Division panel concurred with Ark’s initial decision, so both rulings were consistent.

“The Court of Appeals' decision to hear this case is a critical step in upholding the will of Rochester’s voters to create and empower a strong Police Accountability Board,” Andrew Celli, an attorney hired by City Council to handle the case, said in a news release. “At a legal level, it gives the Council the opportunity to demonstrate that history, law, and Court of Appeals precedents all fully support the city’s power to control its police officers, and that the PAB is a lawful exercise of that power.”

Conor Dwyer Reynolds.

The Police Accountability Board was created after a November 2019 referendum, where voters resoundingly approved it. Initially it was tasked with developing a disciplinary matrix for officers found to have committed some form of misconduct as well as reviewing Rochester Police Department policies and recommending changes.

Ark’s ruling was handed down in May 2020. By that July, City Council had resolved to appeal that decision, but in June 2021, a panel of state Appellate Division judges upheld Ark’s decision.

"It's difficult to read the tea leaves,” said Conor Dwyer Reynolds, executive director of the Police Accountability Board. “What this suggests is that the Court of Appeals wants to say something about this case. It could want to say that the doctrine allows the PAB to have disciplinary powers or it could say otherwise. I think it's absolutely a good sign that they're taking this case up."

The Police Accountability Board has a $5 million line in the city’s 2021-22 budget and it has started the hiring process for various attorney, investigator, and community outreach jobs, among other positions.