Police Accountability Board has a victory -- but challenges are ahead

Oct 18, 2019

A panel of judges this week said that Rochester voters can vote on a Police Accountability Board in this year’s elections, but for Frank Simmons, it's about getting justice for his son.

Simmons held a sign in the background Friday, as leaders of the Police Accountability Board Alliance spoke to the media about their court victory. Simmons has been a mainstay in the group’s public events.

“For me,” said Simmons, “just the little part that I played, I was very, very jubilated to see this come about.”

If the board is approved by voters, a group of civilians like Simmons will determine punishments on some police misconduct cases. That’s something Simmons hopes will slow down misconduct incidents.

“We have to look over our shoulders and still be in fear of the police because they’re only accountable, it appears, to themselves,” said Simmons.

Credit James Brown / WXXI

Simmons said he got involved with the effort for an independent board after Rochester police shot his son Silvon in the back three times in 2016. Silvon Simmons was charged and later acquitted of shooting at officers. His attorney Charlie Burkwit claims Simmons was unarmed and is pursuing a civil suit against the Rochester Police Department. 

Frank Simmons said it’s incidents like his son’s that sparked cries for a board in Rochester and beyond.

“We’ve seen comments from other cities that are pushing and pulling for us in Rochester to be an example for them so that they can get a police accountability board also,” he said.

Before an accountability board is formed, it faces continued challenges. The Rochester Police Locust Club, which is the police union, has claimed this type of board violates collective bargaining agreements, as well as state and federal laws, because civilians would decide some punishments. 

In two statements released Friday, the union said it will still fight the establishment of the board.

“It is not about stopping a vote,” one statement read. “It is about stopping legislation that is not legal. President Loretta Scott insults every man and woman who serves as police officers in this city, as well as every other unionized worker in this state, when she suggests that a labor organization is preventing democracy by protecting the due process rights of their members.”

The union also said the legal fight could be costly to taxpayers.

“It is unfortunate that City Council failed to put adequate work into the PAB legislation and equally failed to listen to anyone other than the PAB Alliance and their narrow view on what police discipline is and on what it should be,” said the other statement. “Loretta Scott praised their work, but the reality is their legislation faces numerous legal challenges and is costing the taxpayers substantial money that could be used more efficiently like providing public safety resources that are needed in our city.”

If voters don’t approve the referendum, there will still be a Police Accountability Board, but it would have significantly less power. Ted Forsyth, one of the board’s biggest proponents and a member of the Police Accountability Board Alliance’s executive committee, said that board also would have an uncertain future. 

He anticipates that any board would face a legal challenge from the Locust Club.

Police Accountability Board Executive Board members Ted Forsyth (Left) and Stanley Martin (Right)
Credit James Brown / WXXI

“Should the lawsuit come up, it would be up to the City Council and the city attorney to make arguments saying that if the issue is with discipline, then sever the discipline, and continue on and allow the board to be established,” he said.

Forsyth said that the Police Accountability Board Alliance is already planning for the new board, which could be established as soon as January. He said the board’s disciplinary matrix, which would decide which actions could be taken against officers accused of misconduct, has yet to be developed. 

Forsyth expects to take input on the matrix from the public, the police chief, and the Locust Club, although he said the alliance has not had discussions with the police union or its president, Mike Mazzeo, since 2018.

“I saw him in court yesterday, Mike Mazzeo, but that’s about it.” said Forsyth. “We’ve been moving forward with our strategy, which is getting this passed.”