Tempers flared Wednesday afternoon during a City Council Public Safety, Youth and Recreation committee meeting. The special meeting was called so councilmembers could question the Rochester Police Department about the controversial arrests videotaped at the corners of Avenue A and Hollenbeck last week.
The video, recorded by Rochester resident Clarence Thompson, shows local officers using what some describe as excessive force to make arrests. Thompson was also arrested for “disrupting” the arrests when he refused to follow a police order to return to his car. Officers are shown tackling, punching and pinning the arrestees.
“When I saw this video, it outraged me, it outraged everyone here,” said Councilmember Michael Patterson. He is the representative for the city’s northeast side which includes the streets where the incident happened. “But as a member of council I have a responsibility to be more than simply outraged. I have a responsibility to act.”
Patterson discussed how he’d asked the police to break up the growing open air drug market on Avenue A, prompting the increased police presence. There, dealers have grown so comfortable that they frequently flag down cars to offer drugs. According to RPD, this is what happened last Thursday evening. After seeing drug deals happen on the camera placed there to monitor drug action, two cops in uniform, but in an unmarked car, decided to cruise by when they were also flagged down.
Councilmember Adam McFadden said when he saw the video he knew he needed to call this special meeting to address the officers’ behavior. He, Representatives Carolee Conklin, Loretta Scott, Elaine Spaull and Michael Patterson aggressively questioned the officers with McFadden even stating that the same behavior the cop demonstrated against the women in the video would never have taken place between a black male cop and a white woman.
McFadden also asked for a better understanding of the department’s process of disciplining or removing a cop over excessive force, a slippery term that’s not clearly legally defined.
According to RPD, after a long process of interviews and evidence gathering, the Chief of Police has ultimate say over whether the charges against an officer are sustained or not. If so, RPD then negotiates a guilty plea with the police union or the officer can seek a hearing.
Overall, Ciminelli said there were a number of reprimands and some officers were put on unpaid suspension, for a total of 51 unpaid suspension days in 2014 in response to complaints. He said this year, that number rose to over 100 and he terminated one officer over excessive force.
RPD Chief Michael Ciminelli said there is a total of three hours of video which they are still analyzing. And it can still be a few weeks yet before there is a final decision regarding the video.
“We try to follow legal principles of what’s reasonableness,” said Ciminelli in response to Scott’s question about defining “excessive force.” He added that the RPD may be even more strict about defining excessive force, saying “Even if the law might recognize a certain level of force as reasonable we have policy restrictions that the officers are held to… The force needs to be proportional to the threat or lawful object that the officer is trying to accomplish. So, if the officer is acting to defend himself, it has to be no more than what’s necessary to accomplish that.”
Race continued to be the elephant in the room as many felt the arrestees had only been treated aggressively because they’re black. However, Police Chief Michael Cimminelli continued to reiterate that the police force is focused on ensuring fair and objective policing. He said they want to avoid the riots and other tension happening in cities throughout the nation and work constantly on teaching de-escalation techniques.
However, the meeting ended with audience members interrupting the proceedings. When told they would be unable to speak at the committee meeting but could sign up to speak at the council meeting Tuesday, they began to shout, asking “Why do I need to sign up to speak?”
The latest incident comes after a string of other larger profile cases involving RPD, including the story of Rickey Bryant who claimed he was assaulted by cops who’d mistaken his identity.
Overall, many activists believe no change has actually been effected despite a long summer of arrests, protests and community discussions.
“It honestly feels like nobody is listening, or if they are they don’t want to do their job,” said Breonna White, a 19-year-old Rochester resident. “It’s easier to stay the same and it seems like we’re ending another year with more of the same.”
Lovely Mayor Warren and Chief Ciminelli have both stated that they understand the concerns of Black Lives Matters proponents and are working avidly to tackle issues of brutality and enforcing better, more inclusive and less aggressive policy.
McFadden said Wednesday afternoon that he will be seeking solutions as well.
“What I will recommend is that we have a taskforce that will get together when these things happen that will decide the course of action that we’ll take whether it’s a public meeting or some other type of action but for me there is a number of questions,” he said.
And Patterson also stressed the need for context telling protestors and angry community members: “What I’m asking you all to do, those of you interested in keeping your mind open is to see this video, not let go of your outrage because it is outrageous, but to allow this video to be placed in context.”
Ultimately, he said he will continue to support police efforts to break up the drug market.
“The actions against the open air drug market that exist at the corner of Aven ue a and Hollenbeck are actions that I wholeheartedly support and I will continue to support them because that market has to be broken up and we have to do that.”