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Council debates erupt over funding for RPD mental health contracts

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City Council has approved contracts with two firms to provide trauma and wellness training to Rochester police officers, but the measure was preceded by fierce debate among Council members.

In a 7-2 vote, Council members approved a $122,400 contract, with San Antonio-based Solution Point Plus, which would train 20 officers as trauma coaches. Those officers would then train every patrol officer, sergeant, and lieutenant in the department over a seven-week period. The measure was submitted by former interim Mayor James Smith. The “no” votes came from Councilmembers Stanley Martin and Kim Smith.

While Council members generally agreed that offering mental health training was an admirable objective, a prolonged argument broke out over the source of the funding for the contract and whether the training was redundant. The money will come from $1 million allocated by former Mayor Lovely Warren to meet recommendations from the city-county Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE).

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Stanley Martin

As she explained why she was voting against the legislation, Martin argued that officers already have access to mental health resources through their benefits and the Employee Assistance Program.

“I really do want to challenge the narrative that this is the only opportunity for RPD to act on wellness, when in fact they are given very significant benefits to access wellness,” Martin said as she explained her vote. “The community needs should be put first. The community needs housing, the community needs violence prevention services, the community has needs that have not been met.”

“I’m deeply concerned that this administration is also continuing to uphold the systems of white supremacy that do not put the needs of the city of Rochester first,” Martin continued.

Mayor Malik Evans immediately fired back, invoking his father, the late Lawrance Lee Evans Sr.

“Jesus, I think the Minister Lawrance Evans Sr. would be rolling in his grave if his son wanted to uphold white supremacy,” Evans said. “That’s just unbelievable to even hear. We’re talking about a recommendation that came from RASE.”

Evans emphasized that the $1 million RASE commitment made by the previous administration was a starting point, and his administration plans to increase commitments to it.

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Incoming Rochester Mayor Malik Evans

Under the Solution Point Plus contract, $50,000 of the city’s funds will be used to train the initial 20 RPD trauma coaches, with the remaining $72,400 being used to cover overtime costs incurred while those coaches train the remaining officers.

The legislation passed by Council included a separate three-year contract with Lexipol to use its CordicoShield law enforcement wellness app. The city will pay $81,000 for a three-year contract with Lexipol, bringing the total spent on the officer mental health and wellness contracts to roughly one-quarter of a million dollars.

The RASE Commission was born as a city-county partnership following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. It’s charge was to analyze government systems and to recommend changes that would address structural racism and racial inequity in the region.

One of the commission’s recommendations was “that uniformed personnel be provided training on the consequences of trauma for themselves and the community, and that they have more resources available for officer wellness.”

Councilmember Willie Lightfoot, a retired firefighter who served as Council’s liaison to the RASE Commission, said that existing resources, which are optional, are not adequately used by officers.

“In this space of wellness, you have to have credible messengers and credible people that are going to be able to get the attention of these individuals,” Lightfoot said. “Unfortunately, the culture of it, and I’m not necessarily saying I agree with it, but the fact of the matter is they’re not going to many of these resources.”

Solution Point Plus is a group of retired law enforcement and military veterans, led by former Marine and San Antonio police officer Joe Smarro, that consults with law enforcement across the country on matters of mental health and trauma. The group has been a consultant for the Federal Bureau of Prisons; Greensboro, North Carolina; and Shreveport, Louisiana; among other departments.

The contract with Solution Point Plus did not go through a request for proposal bidding process, due in part because of the experience of Smarro and his associates. The justification document also noted Smarro appearing as the subject of the 2019 HBO documentary “Ernie and Joe: Crisis Cops” as a reason for the firm’s selection.

Lexipol is widely used by law enforcement nationwide, both for its wellness app and its departmental policy guidance, though the company has been scrutinized for its work in the latter area. A 2020 article from Mother Jones concluded that Lexipol’s policies emboldened officers to act on the “bare minimum” of legal accountability, rather than holding officers to a higher standard.

Danielle Ponder, a former member of the RASE Commission, also criticized the contracts with Solution Point Plus and Lexipol. Ponder was concerned with allocating a quarter of the RASE Commission budget to fund the department’s endeavors.

“The Rochester Police Department already has a $95 million budget, the Rochester Police Department already has an armored vehicle that’s worth more than $600,000,” Ponder said. “Nobody is coming out against officer wellness, but the question is why can’t RPD find that money within their own bloated budget?”

WXXI News reporter April Franklin contributed to this story.

Gino Fanelli covers City Hall for CITY and WXXI News. He came to CITY as a reporter in 2019 by way of the Rochester Business Journal, and formerly served as a watchdog reporter for Gannett in Maryland and a stringer for the Associated Press.