The Reinvention of Jim Sheppard and the Rise of the New Jim Crow

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Election Tears and Revenge

Not a day passed following the Sept. 2013 Democratic Party Mayoral Primary in which the opposition wasn’t plotting revenge. Rochester’s legacy white political elite were reeling from their defeat to a young black woman from the 19th Ward – Lovely Warren had just won the Party designation for Mayor – a historic first for the city that was once home to Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. But this achievement did not sit well in the “progressive” hearts of this political faction, despite their Democratic Party registration.

The polls said their incumbent mayor 1% would win. They had mounted a clear campaign cash advantage, had three times the number of ads on TV, the white mainstream press in their back pocket, all the major worker unions’ (read: white workers unions ) endorsements, and symbolic blessings from the figurehead of white power in Greater Rochester – conservative radio host Bob Lonsberry’s endorsement.

Tom Richards' campaign sign outside Workers United on East Ave. Credit: Rochester Indymedia

Tom Richards’ campaign sign outside Workers United on East Ave. Credit: Rochester Indymedia

Despite all the advantages, the establishment had somehow lost the primary. But rather than concede defeat and support the Democratic Party’s chosen candidate, the white institutional players (Ken Warner, Molly Clifford, Carolee A. Conklin) used the Independence Party. The Independence Party in Rochester is white Republicans who know they won’t be electable in an urban setting if they call themselves Republicans, so opt for the euphemistic “Independence Party.” Warner and his republican friends created a Turn Out for Tom last ditch effort in the final weeks before the general election.

Their beloved candidate, former CEO of RG&E, was not used to losing, but desperate to rally his white-racist base, Tom Richards went on the Bob Lonsberry show the day before the election. Recall Bob Lonsberry was kicked off the radio temporarily in 2003 for racist remarks against former African American mayor Bill Johnson.

Mayor 1% got trounced again in the general election, this time by a 16% margin as compared to the 15% defeat in the primary. Instead of spending a few days or months of introspection, the white privilege faction doubled down on retribution, either that or depression. Many of those at City Hall, who had backed the Turn Out for Tom campaign could be seen weeping at work for the entire week following the election.

There exists an obvious conflict within the Democratic Party, but as with any conflict or argument, the way forward might be to listen to what the other side is attempting to say, rather than just thinking about what you are going to say next. For the past four years, the white political elite have not bothered to listen and have been in campaign mode since day 1 of Lovely’s Warren’s term in office.

The Rise of the New Jim Sheppard Crow

Soon after Lovely Warren was elected, Jim Sheppard announced his resignation as police chief. He was very clear to state at the time that his resignation had nothing to do with the new Mayor:

“I’d be doing this whether Mayor Richards was in, or not,” said Sheppard at his outgoing announcement.

Fast-forward to January 16, 2017 with Sheppard explaining his retirement on Evan Dawson’s show:

“Once she announced she was gonna run, I knew that, uh, um, from my perspective, um, that was not administration I wanted to work in.”

The reinvention of Jim Sheppard began just a few months into his retirement.

In March 2014, Sheppard took a job with Center for Youth. Was there any coincidence that this new employer’s executive director was Elaine Spaull, an ardent supporter of the Turn Out for Tom campaign? As city council’s East District member, Spaull represents the whitest and most affluent section of Rochester.

Sheppard directed the Center’s New Beginning Program, which mentored at-risk males, helping them in their academic and everyday lives. This had do be a redemptive activity for Sheppard, given his past career of doing nearly the opposite, as chief of racial profiling and criminalization of young black men and women.

Rochester’s legendary racist police history is chronicled in July ’64, a documentary about the rebellion of blacks against the Rochester police in 1964, an uprising that required the National Guard to quell. Fast-forward to the 1990’s and five police officers, including current Locust Club president Michael Mazzeo, facing a 19-count federal grand jury indictment, alleging police brutality, conspiracy to violate the civil rights of suspects, embezzlement, among other crimes. This RPD despotism is well documented in Ted Forsyth’s “Drudging Up the Past on Police Union President Mike Mazzeo” and Taunja Isaac’s documentary Minus 25, The Betty Tyson Story. Now fast-forward to 2010-14, the era of police chief Jim Sheppard, and once again Rochester makes national news for all the wrong reasons.

“You can’t even call the police on the police.” -Tache Young

In 2011, Emily Good, a young white woman, was arrested for videotaping police from her front yard. She was videoing two young black men being stopped and frisked by the RPD. “I don’t feel safe,” said the arresting officer of Good standing in her pajamas with her cell phone. The video went viral, the story was picked up by CNN, and other major news outlets. Chief Sheppard, at the press conference the following week, backed up the arresting officer’s conduct.

In the summer of 2013, Benny Warr, a disabled African American man was waiting for a bus when two white police officers maced and threw him out of his wheel chair to the ground, where he was kicked, punched and kneed. Again the video goes viral and gains national attention and again the police chief is supportive of the arresting officers. Tache Young, the young woman recording the incident, is overheard saying, “you can’t even call the police on the police.”

“We’re doing what they want us to do,” said Sheppard, referring to requests made but the neighborhood business association for clearing the block. The RPD apparently took orders from the business association that made it criminal to be on the sidewalks congregating—even though, according to James Muhammad of the Jefferson Avenue Business Association, at a community rally in support of Mr. Warr on May 18, 2013 said, “We did not give the police the task to do what they did.”

Later that summer of 2013, Brenda Hardaway, a pregnant black woman, was slammed against the side of a house, punched in the head, and then tackled to the ground. All of this was caught on video, the story was picked up nationally by CNN, Huffington Post, USA Today. What was Chief Sheppard’s response this time? His officers showed “tremendous restraint.” The local NAACP called for Sheppard’s resignation.

Then in December of 2013, three young black men from the Edison Tech basketball team were waiting for a school bus to take them to a sports scrimmage, but instead they were arrested for loitering. Their arrests drew sharp criticism from their coach and school officials. Chief Sheppard: “the police were justified in making the arrest.”

In summation, being the leader and spokesman for police brutality, justifying the beating down of pregnant women, people in wheel chairs, and wrongful arrests of black boys, is qualification for mentoring at-risk young black men at Center for Youth. And 1 plus 1 equals 3. This is the leadership logic of Rochester’s “finest.” As in the case of police union leader Mazzeo: the more criminal your record, the higher you will be promoted.

Sheppard, despite his messaging as “policing in the spirit of service,” amped up the philosophies and practices of New Jim Crow policing while chief. City Councilman Adam McFadden has referred to the former police chief as “James ‘Stop and Frisk Sheppard” and the charge isn’t unjustified.

Former Mayor Richards and Sheppard together authored “Operation Cool Down” which was proposed as the benign heir to their predecessor’s “Zero Tolerance” program. The result is black neighborhoods are blasted with more policing, more stops, more searches, all justified in the “spirit of service” and for “public safety.” Or in the case of Jim Sheppard, even greater divine callings: “Everything in my police career was about saving lives.”

Yet his crusade lacked acknowledgement or awareness of the mounting academic and video evidence of police criminality sweeping across the nation at the time. In his chapter titled “Criminal Justice” for The State of Black Rochester 2013, Sheppard cites numerous statistics that indicate crime disproportionately occurring in majority black neighborhoods. “Implication: Police go where the crime is,” Sheppard writes justifying his over-policing of Black youth. But there is a problem with Sheppard’s logic, as clarified here by Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness:

Subjecting people to stops and searches because they live in “high crime” ghettos cannot be said to be truly race-neutral, given that the ghetto itself was constructed to contain and control groups of people defined by race. Even seemingly race-neutral factors such as “prior criminal history” are not truly race-neutral. A black kid arrested twice for possession of marijuana may be no more of a repeat offender that a white frat boy who regularly smokes pot in his dorm room. But because of his race and his confinement to a racially segregated ghetto, the black kid has a criminal record, while the frat boy, because of his race and relative privilege, does not. Thus, when prosecutors throw the book at black repeat offenders or when police stalk ex-offenders and subject them to regular frisks and searches on the grounds that it makes sense to “watch criminals closely,” they are often exacerbating racial disparities created by the discretionary decision to wage the War on Drugs almost exclusively in poor communities of color.

Despite The New Jim Crow appearing on the New York Times Best Sellers list for over a year from 2010-11, and being the most read criminal justice book in the country at the time, Jim Sheppard admitted to not having read it, when asked by a Rochester Indy Media contributor outside a public event in 2012. How could it be that someone at the pinnacle of the criminal justice system had not read probably the most important book on his profession in the past 30 years?

Ream Kidane, a Rochester activist, had read the book. He held a book review of The New Jim Crow on November 13, 2012 at the Central Library in downtown Rochester as part of the library’s lunch-time lecture series. Just a year earlier Kidane had been arrested in Washington Square Park along with 30 other protesters as part of the Occupy Rochester movement. The one doing the arresting was none-other-than the police chief himself – Jim Sheppard. Rochester became the first city in New York State, under then Mayor Tom Richards, to forcibly remove protesters of the Occupy movement.

Occupy organizer Ream Kidane arrested by Chief Jim Sheppard (via WROC-TV)

Occupy organizer Ream Kidane arrested by Chief Jim Sheppard (via WROC-TV)

Now fast forward to November 14, 2017, Sheppard in making his mayoral candidacy announcement, recalls his response to the Occupy movement:

“When the going gets tough, the leader is out front. I remember dealing with the Occupy Rochester movement. I met with them, I listened to them. I told them what my responsibilities were in terms of public safety and I treated them with respect. I was embarrassed to see how (Mayor Warren’s) administration to the Black Lives Matters protesters. 75 arrests and I watched it LIVE on tv as a local tv anchor repeated, ‘Where’s the mayor?” Where’s the leadership, what’s the plan. This administration was not there. I will be.”

So instead of watching it LIVE on television, we are to believe that this former police chief will be there on the street “respecting” the protesters next time around. But in this announcement, it is not even clear if Sheppard is supportive of Black Lives Matter. If so, why was he watching it on TV? Shepard has shown up when white people are marching for everything this past year, why not for when black people march?

Protector of the 1%

And judging from his record with the Occupy movement, would the BLM movement even want the former chief to be there. What would Sheppard’s “plan” be? Here is Kidane’s response regarding Sheppard’s account of Occupy:

“I’m not sure why he chose Occupy, of all things, to emphasize. He arrested everyone in the park on two separate nights! His tactics were heavy handed. They had riot cops there frequently and had high level crowd control vehicles. As a police liaison, I didn’t have a single conversation with him, nor did they reach out to us except to coerce us to leave. Others may have spoke with him. We won the right to occupy the park because they figured they’d have a battle on their hands, not because they were interested in “working with us.” This is not a defense of Warren, obviously, but damn Sheppard.”

So correction to Sheppard’s story: he didn’t listen to them, he didn’t respect them, he arrested them all.

“He was doing the actual arrests himself because he couldn’t trust his officers,” added Ryan Acuff – an activist who recalled the numerous episodes leading up to the Occupy encampment, where the RPD were out of control. Acuff added jokingly, “I guess if you call arresting 40 or so people, respecting them…”

The reinvention of Jim Sheppard continued on March 22, 2016, when he held a book review of Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. The book references the events of Ferguson, Trayvon Martin, and South Carolina in discussing the themes of slavery, police brutality, and mass incarceration. Recall that the book reviewer this day is the former chief who arrested the fellow who had done the book review of The New Jim Crow, only 4 years prior.

For observers with memories longer than a milli-second, the transformation from chief defender of police brutality to staunch social justice advocate is astonishing. Are we to believe that a man who over and over told black youth and black people in general that they didn’t matter during his four years as police chief, has had a miraculous change of heart? When it counted, on his watch, with every major spectacle of police abuse and brutality that earned national attention, Sheppard not only was unable to tell the black community in Rochester that their voices mattered, that the Rochester police were indeed out of control, he managed to do the opposite, confirming his public support for the New Jim Crow tactics of his true “brothers” in blue.

Ken Warner with Sheppard at majoral candidate announcement (via

Ken Warner with Sheppard at majoral candidate announcement (via

It is obvious then why Sheppard earned recently the endorsement of established racist Bob Lonsberry in his Jan. 14th column “Sheppard For Rochester.” It is obvious when at nearly every public appearance Sheppard makes, he is flanked by white establishment player Ken Warner. Warner, when he is not leading back-door Turn Out For Tom political coups, is the Executive Director of UNICON – a partnership of unions and contractors, the same contractors that were indicted by the FBI in 2014 for bid rigging and falsifying contracts with black-owned companies. It is obvious who is running his campaign. Sheppard promises to bring Democratic Party unity, but with Ken Warner as his key political advisor, it’s equivalent to calling for ‘peace in the middle east’ and hiring Dick Cheney as your envoy.

Finally, what message does it send that the proper path to Mayor is through the police department? The message that is understood by people of color is that they live in a police state, and that every few years the guardians of white power feel the need to put the black population back in their place. We have seen this counter-revolution to the #Black Lives Matter movement gain footing nationally with calls by the new president for a return to “law and order” in addition to an increase in police killings of citizens in 2017. This regression need not gain traction in Rochester.

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