by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) The United Christian Leadership Ministry hosted a panel discussion on race and policing Thursday evening in a sweltering church parking lot on Clarissa Street.
At several points during the two-hour-long event, the conversation got pretty heated as well.
Over a dozen panelists participated in the discussion, from police brass and city councilmembers, to defense attorneys and activists. They fielded written questions from a mostly white audience.
But the issue that elicited the most intense debate was not that of police brutality or police accountability--in fact, virtually every panelist raised their hand when asked whether they thought Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin should spend time in prison.
The most contentious topic was arguably that of defunding the police. And the most vocal opponent of that demand was not any of the law enforcement leaders--for the most part they stayed out of the fray, speaking up mainly to criticize the police union.
Rather, it was City Councilmember Willie Lightfoot who emerged as the most outspoken defender of the City's budget priorities--including the decades long flat-funding of the RCSD.
To Defund Or Not to Defund
“Defund the Police” has become a central demand of the Black Lives Matter movement.
In Rochester, there are significant divergences among community leaders and elected officials around the demand.
In June, BLM organizers called on Rochester City Council to cut the RPD’s $96 million budget in half and reallocate those funds to youth services, mental health services for the community, and education.
The City created a $750,000 commission chaired by former Mayor Bill Johnson to study how to “reimagine policing" instead.
Reverend Lewis Stewart, the convenor of Thursday’s panel discussion, said during his opening remarks that the UCLM favors “reallocation of resources,” but clarified that he meant allocating more resources to training RPD officers.
“Reallocation of resources to basically train police officers to be better police officers. Comprehensive training… racial justice and education training... mental health evaluations on an annual basis,” Stewart said.
RPD Chief La'Ron Singletary observed that in a department "where 90% of the budget is personnel costs... if you're talking about cutting the budget by 50%, you're talking about taking the number of officers down to 300, 350."
Panel moderator Adrian Hale added that the crux of the issue is not just how to shrink systems that do disproportionate harm to communities of color, but also how to reinvest resources in ways that prevent crime.
“That’s the billion dollar question,” City Councilmember Lightfoot said. “When you ask 9 different people... you get 9 different answers of where to allocate that money at,” Lightfoot said, encouraging community members to participate in the new city-county commission to reimagine policing.
And in a throwaway comment that drew uncomfortable laughter, Lightfoot added, “Some people say, give it to the school district. I ain’t givin’ a dime to the school district. I’m sorry, you’re not getting another dime from me.”
Lightfoot doubled down when taken to task over the remark. “Would you give a crackhead more money? No!”
The comment highlights a faultline in local politics, where the de facto decision to defund the Rochester City School District elicits less pushback among certain quarters than the call to cut the Rochester Police Department budget.
"When we say things like we're not giving the school another dime and we laugh about it," Black Lives Matter organizer Ashley Gantt said, "forget the school board, forget the adults, the impact that has on our students is the problem."
“There was proven mismanagement of money,” Lightfoot said in reference to the RCSD budget shortfall discovered last September. “That’s not the case necessarily [with] the police department. We know what that money is going for,” Lightfoot said, after emphasizing the fact that Rochester has seen 19 homicides so far this year.
"I run a barbershop on Jefferson Avenue. I'm talking to citizens everyday. They're not telling me to defund no police. They're calling me to say you better not defund our police," Lightfoot said.
Lightfoot's invocation of homicide numbers elicited pushback from several panelists, as well as from moderator Adrian Hale.
“The current presence of police did not deter or prevent those homicides… so that argument just isn’t panning out,” Hale said.
Gantt added that the RPD has an overall case closure rate of 26% and that the vast majority of crimes reported in Rochester--roughly 80% in 2018-19-- were non-violent “property crimes.”
“In the words of Danielle Ponder, if you got a 26 on your test you would fail…. So when we’re quoting stats let’s make sure we put it in context,” Gantt said.
At one point during the intense back and forth, Lightfoot acknowledged that officials and organizers may have to educate the community on the fact that hiring more police might not necessarily make them safer.
Scapegoat in absentia
Noticeably absent from Thursday’s panel discussion was Rochester Police Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo, who organizers say dropped out at the last minute, urging other law enforcement panelists to do the same.
"I know one of the reasons why Mike said that he wasn't going to be here was that he didn't want to be associated necessarily with people that are anti-police," said Brighton Police Chief Dave Catholdi. "And I really think that's the wrong attitude."
Brighton PD officers are not members of the Locust Club.
Several panelists, including law enforcement management, suggested that a collective bargaining agreement could be a stumbling block to progress on issues of discipline and accountability.
When asked what it would take to void the City's collective bargaining agreement with the Police Locust Club, City Council President Loretta Scott explained, “You can’t just not do the agreement. You would essentially have to abolish the department and create something new.”
Scott did not appear to endorse that particular course of action.
Councilmember Lightfoot expressed frustration over the fact that City Council has not been privy to the negotiations he says are currently taking place between city administration and the police union around the agreement.
Defense attorney and former City Court Judge Leticia Astacio shot back.
“Well if you don’t know what’s going on, apparently we withhold funds,” Astacio said in reference to Lightfoot’s earlier comment about the RCSD. “But when it came time to hand out $96 million this year, if we weren’t invited to talk to the union then maybe that was a good time to say let’s abolish this system that we can’t be a part of, that we pay for.”
Thursday’s panel discussion was part of the Community Police Relations Initiative led by Reverend Lewis Stewart.
Several panelists noted that Stewart and others had been working at improving "community police relations" for many years. Whatever the solutions may be, there were unlikely to be any easy fixes.
Darien Lamen is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.