by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) The Rochester Police Department's violent arrest of two young Black men on Bay Street last weekend prompted public outrage and condemnation this week.
The incident is one of several high-profile cases in recent years where RPD use of force has come under public scrutiny.
But a recently-obtained report shows that RPD use of state-approved forms of violence during an arrest is not uncommon in Rochester.
And while the bureaucratic language around "police use of force" presumes that officers are essentially reactive, city data shows that a large percentage of police "calls for service" last year were discretionary and officer-initiated--in other words, "calls for service" for which officers were not called.
This kind of proactive policing, which has become a fixture in hyper-surveilled communities of color, has the potential to end badly, as the violent Bay Street arrests demonstrate.
"Getting ahead of it"
As word of the Bay Street incident began to spread on social media, RPD Chief La'Ron Singletary called a rare Sunday afternoon press conference "in the interest of transparency" and to, in his words, "get ahead of it."
According to the RPD's account, an officer came across an unnamed 23-year-old man walking in the street shortly after midnight Sunday. The officer engaged him after the man allegedly broke a bottle in the street.
The RPD claims officers were concerned with the man's well-being, citing what they reported as the man's "fighting posture" and shouts of "Are you going to kill me? Kill me. Gangster, I wish you would kill me" after police initiated contact.
The RPD says they pepper-sprayed the man and forced him to the ground after he allegedly resisted attempts to handcuff him.
Officers then turned their attention to Tobias Massey Jackson, a concerned 21-year-old bystander who had begun recording the incident, as the 23-year-old shouted "I can't breathe, please, I don't want to die." Officers chased Jackson into his home and forcibly arrested him, spraining his wrist in the process.
Jackson was then charged with obstructing governmental administration and resisting arrest. During Sunday's press conference, Chief Singletary announced the department would be dropping those charges and launching an internal investigation into the arrests.
Meanwhile, the 23-year-old was reportedly taken to a hospital before being transported to the Monroe County Jail, where he was charged with second-degree assault for allegedly biting an RPD officer during the Bay Street incident. No other charges were filed against him.
Every three hours
A recently-obtained report from the RPD's Professional Standards Section (PSS) shows that the use of force during an arrest is not an uncommon occurrence.
Last year RPD officers reported 2,550 uses of force on 767 people--an average of one use of force every 3 hours. The majority of those people, 67%, were Black.
That report was compiled using so-called "subject resistance reports" (SRRs) that RPD officers are required to fill out whenever they use force during an interaction with a citizen.
The form requires officers to check boxes to indicate which “control measures” were used. These range from pressure points and punches to pepper spray, batons, dogs, and guns.
But the largest category listed on the 2019 aggregate report, about 44% of all SRRs, is the opaque category of “Other.”
According to an RPD spokesperson, officers check the "Other" category if the specific "control measure" used is not listed on the cover page of the SRR form. "As you can imagine, all situations are unique and do not always respond to a check box format," the spokesperson said.
The Subject Resistance Report form also asks officers to provide a written "narrative" that presents each discrete use of state violence as a response to an action taken by the citizen.
These report forms--which are tellingly called "subject resistance reports," and not, for example, "police use of force disclosure forms"--presume that officers are essentially or ideally reactive, with each escalation of force proceeding as a consequence of the citizen's "resistance" to police authority.
The SRR form suggests that any of the following can be construed as forms of "subject resistance" warranting police use of force:
Yet the open secret among police officers and police abolitionists alike is that "the narrative" is not always a log of cause and effect. Rather, "the narrative" does the work of providing a post-facto justification for decisions officers may make in the moment, including decisions to intervene in situations that may not actually represent a threat to public safety.
This phenomenon may have been on display following another high-profile incident that took place on May 20, 2020, in which an RPD officer handcuffed a 10-year-old girl during a traffic stop and subsequently reported this was done after she began "pulling away" from officers.
But police body camera video released a month later directly contradicts the narrative provided by officers and reiterated by the RPD Chief himself.
Video of the incident shows that RPD officers had the 10-year-old exit the car on the highway side, then gave her "one second to comply" before handcuffing and detaining her. At no point in the body camera footage can the girl be seen "pulling away" or, as the media reported, "running toward oncoming traffic" before handcuffs are put on.
An internal investigation concluded that officers involved in the May 20th incident had not violated any departmental policies.
Public safety and state-sanctioned harm
When citizens are subjected to state-approved forms of violence during an arrest, it is not uncommon for them to suffer injuries, as at least one of the men arrested Sunday on Bay Street did.
In 2019, for example, 11% of the 767 people subjected to RPD use of force reported an injury, compared with 2.6% of RPD officers involved in use of force incidents.
It's difficult to determine how RPD's use of force rates compare to those of other police departments, however, since reporting is not standardized.
In Rochester, the RPD reports use of force incidents in relation to number of arrests made.
In 2019, the RPD made 9,611 arrests and reported using force in 8% of them. That represents a slight increase in the rate at which officers reportedly used force during the previous year (6.8%), where RPD made more significantly more arrests (11,461).
For the purposes of comparison, the Pittsburgh Police Department, which polices a city with nearly 100,000 more residents, made 11,700 arrests in 2018 and reported using force in only 4.5% of them.
While national level data about police use of force is difficult to interpret, the Bay Street incident reflects another observed national trend: police-intiated street stops of African Americans are more likely to involve the use of force.
Composite DOJ survey data for 2002-2011 shows that police-initiated stops accounted for the majority of face-to-face encounters between police and citizens. Of those, street stops (7.6%) like the one that precipitated the incident Sunday were much more likely than traffic stops (1.1%) to involve the use or threat of nonfatal force.
During all police-initiated stops, African Americans (4.9%) and Latinos (2.5%) were more likely to experience police use of nonfatal violence than whites (1.8%). And during street stops specifically, African Americans (14%) were the demographic group that most reported experiencing police use of nonfatal force.
According to Rochester's most recent budget documents, RPD officers initiated 130,337 "discretionary" interactions with citizens in FY2018-19. That means over 40% of all police "responses" were "calls for service" for which they were not called.
In this sense, the city's use of the generic term "police response" to refer to even discretionary, police-initiated stops further reinforces the notion of police as essentially reactive, obscuring the extent to which police use of force incidents are precipitated by pro-active policing and hyper-surveillance of Black and Brown communities.
As the survey data mentioned above suggests, these are the encounters that are more likely to go badly for African Americans.
In the case of the Bay Street incident Sunday, officers decided to engage a 23-year-old Black man who was walking in the street without having been called to respond.
The RPD has not filed any charges against the man that could have provided the law enforcement rationale for the initial stop--not for allegedly jaywalking, public intoxication, or any other offense.
Instead, the only charge the man is facing is for allegedly biting a police officer during the course of a police-initiated interaction in which the man was made to literally beg for his life.
Police accountability from above or below?
RPD Chief La'Ron Singletary has ordered an internal investigation of both Bay Street arrests. And while the outcome of that investigation remains to be seen, it is uncommon for the RPD to find officers guilty of using unnecessary force.
A report by RPD's Professional Standards Section shows that PSS investigated 13 citizen allegations of unnecessary force in 2019, but none was sustained. Similarly, out of 9 departmental allegations of unnecessary force, none was sustained.
According to a 2017 study by Ted Forsyth and Barbara Lacker-Ware, only 2% of civilian complaints of unnecessary force were sustained for the years 2002 through 2015.
The findings in that study laid the groundwork for the creation of Rochester's Police Accountability Board earlier this year. But after a judge stripped the PAB of subpoena and disciplinary power in May, the Board has been left in the position of having to appeal to the RPD Chief's good will and to the spirit of collaboration.
At the same, however, the reinvigorated movement for Black Lives has sparked a kind of reckoning for law enforcement--both nationally and here in Rochester. And it's likely that it was partly this movement that the RPD's Sunday afternoon press conference was hoping to, in the Chief's words, "get ahead of."
"The incident that occurred on Sunday morning is a clear abuse of power--and yet another reason why we need to divest from police and invest in communities," Free the People ROC, the group that has been leading local Black Lives Matter protests, said in a statement Tuesday.
"Our communities need trained mental health professionals and community mediators, not police and jails. We need to stop funding institutions that harm and violate Black and Brown people, and invest in programs that are equipped to handle these situations,” the statement said.
Organizers were attempting to identify the 23-year-old man and bail him out of jail earlier this week.
An appeal of the decision stripping the PAB of disciplinary and subpoena power could be heard as early as September.
Darien Lamen is news producer/director at WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.