We know what happens when we allow police to police themselves. Too often, they escape punishment when they abuse the people they are supposed to protect. A lack of meaningful police accountability not only skirts justice, but also puts people's lives in danger when officers who repeatedly harm civilians keep their jobs.

The Rochester City Council in New York introduced a draft bill this week that addresses this fundamental problem. The bill would create a civilian-controlled Police Accountability Board with the power to investigate complaints from residents and to discipline officers who the board determines have abused people. Rochester would be the first municipality in New York State — and one of just a handful in the country — with a civilian board that has the power to discipline officers.

Most civilian review boards only have the power to make recommendations for what consequences officers should face, with final disciplinary decisions usually left up to the chief of police. Rochester already has a civilian review board, but that board lacks the authority to conduct its own investigations or to impose punishments. This bill would change that.

The Rochester bill is part of a national trend towards creating independent mechanisms for oversight and accountability of police. This trend encompasses calls for the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate police killings, inspector generals to oversee police policies, and even legislation that takes decisions about acquiring surveillance tools out of the hands of police departments.                                                       

The people of Rochester, like Americans across the country, regularly see reminders in the media of why we need greater police accountability.

Some of the starkest examples include the case caught on video of Benny Warr, who was knocked out of his wheelchair by Rochester police in May 2013. Warr said police demanded that he move from a street corner where he was waiting for a bus before they turned him out of his wheelchair and maced him. An internal department review cleared the officers involved of misconduct.

In July 2016, Ricky Bryant was riding his bike at night when, as security camera footage shows, officers swarmed him. Bryant says he was beaten, tased, and pepper-sprayed while in custody after a wrongful arrest. Police Chief Michael Ciminelli said officers should have worn body cameras and should not have used pepper spray, but he cleared them of beating Bryant and of failing to provide him with medical attention.

Time after time, when police departments have authority over disciplinary matters, they let officers off the hook

The city ended up agreeing to settle Bryant’s lawsuit against the department for an undisclosed amount.

And in May of last year, Christopher Pate claimed that after he provided ID to officers, they grabbed him and hit him with a stun gun. Officers then allegedly handcuffed Pate and punched him in the face, fracturing his jaw. One of the officers involved in Pate’s arrest is currently on trial for assault.

In countless cases, the Rochester Police Department has failed to be transparent about how it reaches disciplinary decisions or to explain why officers so often escape punishment. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren’s proposed solution to this problem is to strengthen the current civilian review board by giving it the ability to issue subpoenas and conduct its own, independent investigations. But her proposal stops short of giving the board the power to discipline officers.

The experiences in places like New York City, and numerous other municipalities, expose the limits of the mayor’s proposal. In New York, the Civilian Complaint Review Board’s 2017 report shows that in the majority of cases, the NYPD imposed punishments weaker than those recommended by the CCRB. In some cases, the police department imposed no discipline at all, contrary to the board’s recommendations. In the most serious cases, the NYPD imposed discipline consistent with board recommendations in just 27 percent of cases.

Time after time, when police departments have authority over disciplinary matters, they let officers off the hook or give them minor punishments, sometimes for serious misconduct.

The bill introduced this week would rectify this state of affairs. Warren has said she doesn’t think it would withstand a legal challenge, claiming that the current collective bargaining agreement between the city of Rochester and its police union limits the council’s authority to act. But there is a longstanding recognition by New York courts, the state legislature, and municipalities that control over police discipline is a power that rightly belongs to local government officials. Courts have repeatedly upheld the authority of municipalities to pass local laws regulating police disciplinary procedures.

Rochester has the chance to break through the thin blue line that too often shields police officers from accountability for their actions. The city could provide a national model for how other localities should deal with the persistent problems of police misconduct and abuse.

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