Professional Standards Section: How they work (at least on paper)
On April 10, 2015, the Rochester Coalition for Police Reform (CPR) invited Professional Standards Section (PSS) (the Rochester Police Department's internal affairs unit) to present on what they do and how they operate. Listen to the audio with notes above.
The presenters were Lieutenant Michael Callari, PSS Commanding Officer and Sergeant Robert Snow, PSS Investigating Sergeant.
Listening to the Lieutenant and the Sergeant, I was struck by the obvious deployment of public relations jujitsu and propaganda, where the PSS mission "...is to preserve the integrity and professionalism of the RPD." I did not hear "hold officers accountable," nor did I see any sign of meaningful transparency or justice. Ask either of these guys to talk to you about their "unbiased" investigations or about the integrity of their investigative process, and I'm sure they could have gone on for days. I did hear about certain New York State laws that make police disciplinary records inaccessible to the public because of confidentiality concerns and that if we wanted to change the system, it needed to be done legislatively, by us, not these same officers supposedly interested in justice, transparency, and truth.
When I raised two specific cases, Russell Davis and Benny Warr (see below), I was given evasive answers like, "We can't talk about specific cases," or "You don't know the whole story," which concluded for me that PSS has no interest in actually doing what they claim on the website (different from the mission): "...that official police misconduct will not be tolerated..." Further, all of PSS's findings are sent to the chief of police for final disciplinary action. He has the final say in any discipline, not PSS. The Civilian Review Board (CRB), administered by the Center for Dispute Settlement, works the same way. So, if you want to call justice the "accountability system" we have now, then it's no wonder that we have such a lack of meaningful justice.
Efficacy of the process
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Russell Davis, an African American man who was assaulted by police (immediately held at gun point by multiple officers; he was wrestled to the ground; he received a gash in his head; his handcuffs were too tight which caused bleeding; he was forced to sit in a car for 45 min. to an hour without medical attention) on August 5, 2006 outside his apartment complex on Dewey Avenue. He was then taken to the hospital where he was taunted by officers as he was receiving aid. He was not charged with a crime. Knowing misconduct had occurred, he attempted to use the CRB process and made a complaint at PSS. The PSS sergeant who investigated his complaint and subsequently found no basis for it was Sgt. Ronald Malley. He was the same officer who ordered that Mr. Davis be assaulted on that day in August. When I spoke with Mr. Davis on October 25, 2011, he said he was outraged, not only that his case was dismissed for “no basis,” but more specifically because Sgt. Malley, who ordered six to ten officers to assault him, refused to recuse himself from the case.
“How can you be involved with an assault on a civilian by the police and you is in charge of these police, and you turn around and investigate the incident?” he said in our video interview. “What kind of police department we got going on here in Rochester, New York?”
He found the CRB/PSS process “a waste of time.” He called the process “a hoax.” He also said that because of the assault, he “fears for his life” whenever he sees the police.
“What remedy do I have?” he asked, when trying to make sense of a system of “accountability” that failed him.
In Mr. Davis' case, it took about two years to get a ruling, which didn't find in his favor. (PSS assured us in their power point presentation that the final letter to the complainant goes out on or about day 162 in this process.) This was after he had heard nothing about his case and decided to call then-Chief of Police David Moore every couple of months for updates. Near the end of the interview, Mr. Davis made clear his demands: an independent civilian review board with subpoena power, that complaints not be investigated by law enforcement officers named in them, and that the federal government conduct an intensive review and investigation of the Rochester Police Department.
Another case of interest was that of Emily Good, who was arrested while video taping a racially motivated traffic stop from her front lawn with her ipod, by officer Mario Masic. Masic goes by the alias “Cowboy”—a name given to him by the community as a sign of danger—which he co-opted for his own use. Masic has worn the moniker proudly for years. To this day, he continues to terrorize civilians on the westside of the city.
A week after Ms. Good's video of the traffic stop and her arrest went viral on the internet, someone—and all indications point to the police or their allies, although there was no hard evidence—broke into her home, stole her money and the very ipod she used to film the traffic stop. Another roommate's possessions were rummaged through, but nothing was taken. No DVDs, CDs, electronics, computers, or anything else in plain sight was taken from the house. The kitchen door, in the back of the house, was bashed in; the frame of the door was cracked and broken.
Ms. Good refused to use the CRB and PSS processes because she felt that they were never meant to actually dispense meaningful justice. In a conversation I had with her on March 18, 2015, she texted, “I have no confidence in the process. The police get to make the ultimate decision about what happens. When police came to my house, [8 cars deep with an investigation van] I felt intimidated and didn't want them involved.” To date, there has been no comment or advancement on the “investigation” into who broke into Ms. Good's home.
Finally, there is the ongoing case of Benny Warr, a disabled, African American man who was thrown from his motorized wheelchair and subsequently beat by officers Joseph “Joey” Ferrigno, Anthony “Rock” Liberatore, and Sgt. Mitchell “Bigface” Stewart.
Mr Warr's lawyer, Charles F. Burkwit, advised him to go through with the PSS investigation—counsel was present—with the understanding that the findings would be turned over to the CRB. It took Mr. Burkwit a year to get the PSS findings (nearly 365 days) in which, the report used the narrative of the police as fact, independent eye-witnesses—including the videographer who taped the brutality—were never contacted, no in-depth second-by-second or minute-by-minute analysis of the police department's blue light surveillance camera footage was done, and contradictory statements made by the officers didn't seem to register with police investigators.
Finally, the city's attorney, Spencer Ash, went on the record in an affidavit dated November 7, 2014, saying that, “there was no Civilian Review Board review of this matter.”
In a phone conversation I had with Mr. Burkwit on March 17, 2015, he said, “I think the PSS does a very careful and calculated analysis of evidence. And if they choose to disregard or ignore evidence—I saw that in the case of Benny Warr, where certain important parts of evidence were not noted; especially, in my opinion, if you compare the blue light camera footage with the officers' sworn statements and testimony, there were plenty of inconsistencies.”
Regarding the CRB, Mr. Burkwit concluded, “Therefore, I think the Civilian Review Board cannot just rely on the Professional Standards Section findings as conclusive proof. The Civilian Review Board needs to conduct their own independent investigation. They need to review and scrutinize the investigative work the police have done and they need to decide whether the investigation was accurate or incorrect or if it was partially correct. The Civilian Review board needs to take a much closer look at these cases and not just rely upon the police department's findings.”
Sadly, the 1992 legislation that created the CRB explicitly denied it the investigatory powers called for by Mr. Burkwit.
Where do we go from here?
Right now, work is being done on multiple fronts. Enough Is Enough, an anti-police brutality organization, is putting together a database of police misconduct. They are also working on improving their Know Your Rights and Copwatch trainings. Enough Is Enough collects stories from people abused by the police in order to humanize and publicize the reality coming out of our community. The organization is always looking for motivated people to put time and effort into these projects.
The Rochester Coalition for Police Reform is currently developing its five-point Community Safety Agenda: 1) body cameras for the RPD (check out their Body Worn Camera policy recommendations for City Council), 2) an independent civilian review board with subpoena power and investigative authority, 3) anti-racism training for all officers at the police academy, 4) an end to racial profiling (Stop and Frisk), and 5) right to consent to search procedures where police must inform people of their rights before they act. The coalition is always looking for new partners and volunteers with the passion to make meaningful change.
Finally, there is legislative work that needs to get done. Those laws I alluded to above need to be rescinded and abolished for true community justice and transparency. These are the same institutions that we fund with our tax dollars. Also, in abdicating control over a police force that is given the authority to detain, arrest, and murder civilians, we need to have as much transparency as possible in order to remain vigilant to abuses of power. Those laws we need to rewrite or abolish are:
NYS Civil Rights Law 50–a provides that personnel records of police officers shall be considered confidential and not subject to inspection or review without the express written consent of such police officer, or court order.
The Collective Bargaining Agreement with the Locust Club police union, Article 20, Discipline.
NYS Civil Service Law, Sections 75 and 76.
No disciplinary proceedings shall be commenced more than eighteen (18) months after occurrence of the alleged incompetence or misconduct, except in those instances that would constitute a crime
Disciplinary records of police personnel are confidential.
It's time to start pushing back on legislation and procedures that protect those in power and the abusers of power. Hypocrisy isn't justice. Enough is enough.
Documents handed out from PSS on April 10, 2015: Professional Standards Section Documentation
Related: Rochester Businessman & Activist sues Rochester Police Department for sixth consecutive time | The Civilain Review Board Commission Recommendations Leave Out the Civilian | A rebuttal to the PSS investigation of allegations against officers from Benny Warr's lawyer | Chief Sheppard's statement regarding arrest video