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Top NY court upholds rulings stripping Rochester Police Accountability Board of disciplinary powers

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.
Gino Fanelli
/
WXXI News
Police Accountability Board supporters during a past event in front of Rochester City Hall.

In a split decision issued Monday, the state’s highest court affirmed rulings by lower courts that struck down the Rochester Police Accountability Board’s power to discipline city police officers.

The decision marks the third time a court has ruled that giving the PAB the authority to discipline Rochester police officers would run afoul of state law, ending a four-year saga.

Council President Miguel Melendez said in a statement that the city has exhausted all its legal avenues to keep the board’s disciplinary powers.

“This case was taken to the highest court in the state, and this Council has now exhausted every effort to define the disciplinary powers of the Police Accountability Board,” the statement reads. “Now that we have been given the final determination, we must move forward with this very important work.”

The Rochester Police Locust Club’s original complaint argued that giving disciplinary powers to the PAB violated its collective bargaining agreement and the New York State Public Employees Fair Employee Act, or “Taylor Law.” The appeals court majority’s opinion, written by Judge John Egan, sides with the Locust club. The case was decided by a panel of seven judges, four of whom voted to affirm the lower court’s ruling.

Egan’s opinion specifically points to a 1985 change to the Rochester city charter which effectively handed over police disciplinary power to the police chief. The collective bargaining agreement between the Locust Club and the city lays out specific procedures for investigating misconduct charges and sets guidelines for discipline.

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“Having surrendered the grant of police disciplinary power embodied in the 1907 City Charter in 1985, the attempt in Local Law No. 2 of 2019 to give exclusive disciplinary power to the PAB without the Locust Club's agreement necessarily fails,” the decision reads. Local Law No. 2 established the PAB.

President of the Rochester Police Locust Club Mike Mazzeo said that the decision sets a precedent for what police discipline will look like in Rochester.

“I think this represents the opportunity to take politics out of police discipline,” Mazzeo said. “No longer will some political appointee or some elected official use police discipline to cover up for what’s needed: reform, policy positions and training.”

“If you don’t trust police chiefs or mayors, you get rid of them,” he added.

In 2019, city voters approved creation of the PAB by a 3 to 1 vote. Its mission was to analyze the policies of the Rochester Police Department, make recommendations, investigate claims of misconduct, and compel discipline of officers, including termination.

The Locust Club first sued to block the board’s disciplinary powers in 2019. The Locust Club won that suit, and in May 2020 the trial court justice struck down the section of the law that gave the PAB disciplinary power. In June 2021, a decision from an appeals court panel affirmed Ark’s ruling.

Monday’s decision from the Court of Appeals echoed the previous rulings.

“The politics swirling around this provision are weighty and fraught, but its legality is not,” the 2021 decision reads. “Local Law No. 2 is invalid insofar as it takes police discipline outside the realm of collective bargaining.”

In a statement, interim PAB Executive Director Sherry Walker-Cowart called the ruling “disappointing,” but vowed the agency will continue its work.

“The people of Rochester called for an independent and robust Police Accountability Board,” the statement read. “Since then, we have established an agency that gives them a voice. Not just through independent investigations of alleged misconduct, but through policy reform, and increased community input on how public safety is carried out in this city. This is disappointing, but it is not the end. With community support, the Police Accountability Board will continue to provide transparency, accountability, and justice in Rochester.”

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Rowan Wilson argued that the majority was focused on an old city law rather than precedent set in previous cases, and the intricacies of the Taylor Law.

“The majority has lost the forest for the trees,” Wilson wrote. “Whether a subject must be collectively bargained under the Taylor Law depends on state public policy, not the presence of a conflicting statute. The majority agrees that prior to 1985, state public policy prohibited collective bargaining over police discipline in Rochester, even though Rochester had been bargaining over police discipline for nearly a decade.”

Gino Fanelli is an investigative reporter who also covers City Hall. He joined the staff 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.