City Council Questions Rochester Police Department During Budget Hearing

by Jason Taylor

(WXIR-Rochester) Rochester City Council held its second round of public hearings on Mayor Lovely Warren’s proposed 2020-2021 budget this week. The Council heard from several departments, including the Rochester Police Department.

Police departments are facing renewed scrutiny since the killing of George Floyd while in police custody. Daily protests have spread around the country with protestors calling for racial justice and police reform.

Most City Council members tiptoed around these national issues during the hearing with the RPD Tuesday. Although a few council members asked more direct questions related to the RPD’s conduct. Council member Mitch Gruber asked whether the RPD would purchase military-style equipment with federal aid this year.

Police Chief La’ron Singletary answered: “This year? No.”

Council member Willie Lightfoot wondered about the RPD’s current stock of military-style equipment. “I’d like to know your thoughts around existing equipment that we have currently that seem to be feared by the community as escalating the situation as opposed to de-escalating the situation.”

While some protests have turned violent, the vast majority have been peaceful. Some police departments have been criticized for using disproportionately aggressive tactics against even peaceful protestors, such as firing rubber bullets and using tear gas. The RPD used rubber bullets and tear gas in response to the violence that followed the May 30th protest near the Public Safety Building in downtown Rochester.

Police Chief La’Ron Singletary defended his department’s response. “That’s one of the things you have to keep in mind, when you talk about balancing public safety and the safety of the officers as well as the optics, right. And I think what we’ve done throughout the last couple of incidents that we’ve had is that we have taken a measured response.”

Most city departments are facing budget cuts this year, including the RPD. Its budget would decrease by 3.7%. Yet the RPD would still remain the largest city department, comprising around 18% of the city’s total budget. The RPD’s bureau of community affairs, its newest bureau, is facing more cuts than any other RPD bureau, mainly due to the elimination of the School Resource Officer program with the Rochester City School District.

Part of that bureau’s mission is to educate the public on police conduct and partner with community organizations to address police-related issues. Council member Gruber asked Chief Singletary whether the RPD would be open to working with local leaders of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Singletary replied, “Yes, I mean the climate that we are in right now, I mean I think any law enforcement executive, including me as chief, we have to be looking at seeing what opportunities are available, and inviting people to the table.”

Singletary also said he would work with the Rochester Police Accountability Board, even as the local police union has filed legal challenges against it. Last month a State Supreme Court Judge ruled the PAB does not have the authority to discipline officers for misconduct. City Council has filed an appeal. The PAB is currently accepting applications for executive director.

Council members also asked questions about the amount of overtime hours the RPD budgets for, the effectiveness of the body worn camera program, and how the RPD targets officer recruitment.

According to the RPD’s open data portal, 86% of RPD personnel are White and 85% live outside of the city.

City Council continues to hold online public meetings throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The council has the power to propose changes to the city’s budget. City Council is expected to vote on the city’s budget June 16th.