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Divided City Council passes police reform plan

Mar 29, 2021

Police converge on City Hall on Sept. 16, 2020, in response to demonstrators occupying the exterior of the building.
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News file photo

Two days before the deadline, Rochester City Council has passed its state-mandated police reform plan.

The plan passed by a vote of 5-3, with Councilmembers Mary Lupien, Mitch Gruber, and Malik Evans voting no. Councilmember Jose Peo, a vocal supporter of law enforcement, was absent from the meeting, and was not involved in any of the Council's debates over the plan's amendments.

In June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Executive Order 203, which required every municipality in the state to create and adopt a police reform plan, at the risk of losing state funding. Mayor Lovely Warren's administration tasked four groups -- the Police Accountability Board, the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity, the Rochester Police Department, and United Christian Leadership Ministries -- with helping to form the document.

The document ultimately gives recommendations on police alternative first responders, restrictions on officers' use of restraints and less-than-lethal weaponry, mental health crisis response, and many other facets of policing.

The draft plan was formally released by Warren on Feb. 4, and was the subject of a number of public forums. But last week, Council found itself tossed into a frenzy of debate as members attempted to amend the plan to add specifics on timelines, policy changes, and ultimate goals. 

"We put in some really arduous hours going through it on a very short timeframe, making adjustments and amendments," Council President Loretta Scott said. "Which is the guidance we received from the mayor when she handed it over to us and she said, "It's yours, do what you need to do with it.' "

No members of Council expressed enthusiasm with the final plan. Councilmember Miguel Meléndez said he would not call it an "A-plus plan."

Gruber, in voting it down, said the process to reform policing in Rochester can be done better during this year's budgetary process.

"I think anyone who reads this plan can agree that it does not read like a roadmap that gets us to where we need to be as a community," Gruber said. "Frankly, I want to stop letting big community-wide opportunities for change pass us by."

One of the biggest issues of contention about the final plan was a series of small amendments made by the city administration after Council had made their amendments. On Friday, the city's law department added three amendments to the bill, which included specifying the Police Accountability Board was a subordinate agency of City Council, and its budgetary needs ultimately went through Council.

The day before, Council voted on a resolution urging the firing of Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin, the head of the law department, for his involvement in events following Daniel Prude's death. Curtin's actions were outlined in the report from attorney Andrew Celli released earlier in March.

The law department amendments were not done in a public manner, which also became a subject of contention among Council members and the Police Accountability Board.

"Egregious, wrong, inappropriate, I can use so many words to describe what we just saw," said Conor Dwyer Reynolds, executive director of the Police Accountability Board. "Allowing Tim Curtin to rewrite the bill to eliminate support for the PAB and instead have a provision discussing our independence of power, without the public knowing about it, and without letting the public know it had been changed, is beyond inappropriate."

Reynolds expressed concern that the amendments were added as retaliation to the resolution urging Curtin's firing.

The last-minute additions prompted Councilmember and mayoral candidate Malik Evans to vote no on the plan.

"All of a sudden, at the last minute, I saw that changes were made," Evans said. "Be them minor or not minor is immaterial. In partnerships, we have to work together, talk together, we can't look to hash things out a couple minutes before the meeting. To me, I find that unacceptable."

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.