Jessenia Edgeston wasn’t feeling well the night Feb. 22, 2017, so she sent her husband, Ronnie, out for ginger ale and Pepto Bismol. “He left at 9 p.m. and never came back,” she says.
Edgeston was pulled over for running a stop sign. The officer beat him badly enough to break an eye socket and a few ribs, according to Edgeston. At 4 a.m. she received a call from her husband, who is African American, telling her he was in jail. It was more than a month before the charges against him were dropped, she says.
Edgeston was one of several members of the Rochester Police Accountability Board Alliance to speak before a crowd of about 100 on March 19. The community forum was held to generate public support for a new, independent police accountability board (PAB).
The current system to investigate claims of police misconduct–which can include excessive force–is broken, members say. In its place, they are calling for an independent 11-member Police Accountability Board (PAB), which would include six members of the Alliance and operate under the authority of the Rochester City Council. The PAB would have the power to investigate civilian complaints of police misconduct, issue subpoenas to access evidence and testimony and have the authority to evaluate Rochester Police Department (RPD) policies. There would also be a formula for disciplining officers found to have used excessive force.
For decades, city residents have been pushing for a fairer, more transparent police accountability process, with little success. Currently, the RPD’s internal affairs division–the Professional Standards Section–conducts investigations and then volunteer members of the City’s Civilian Review Board review the report and make recommendation to the Chief of Police. Whether to discipline an officer is at the sole discretion of the Chief. And little about these investigations are made public. This process has been in place since 1992.
At Monday’s meeting, organizers called for more support from city residents “We don’t have enough representation from the people directly effected by profiling and police brutality,” says member Barbara Lacker Ware. Pastor Wanda Williams of the Open Arms Christian Fellowship Ministries urged those gathered to attend City Council meetings to voice their support for the PAB.
Enough is Enough, a grassroots group that has been leading the call for a new PAB, issued an 11-page report, called “The Case for an Independent Police Accountability System.” Through the use of the Freedom of Information Act, the report’s co-authors, Lacker Ware and Ted Forsyth, obtained records of civilian complaints of excessive force from 2002-2015. Out of about 1,200 citizen complaints, officers were found to have committed wrongdoing in 2 percent of the cases. And the harshest penalties meted out were six suspensions.
Police discipline is one area the Locust Club, the RPD’s police union, has traditionally influenced through collective bargaining agreements. Another roadblock is a state civil service law that keeps police officers’ performance evaluations confidential. Advocates throughout the state are trying to change this law.
“We need to persuade City Council to make sure discipline is part of the new police contract currently under negotiation,” said A.J. Durwin, a local attorney and an Alliance member.
Momentum seems to be building to reform Rochester’s police accountability system. Lacker Ware said thus far 90 organizations have signed on to support the proposal.
The group has certainly caught the attention of the City Council. In its latest newsletter, Council President Loretta Scott writes that one of her main priorities is to improve the Civilian Review Process. “We have heard from city residents…read reports from community groups and engaged the Center for Governmental Research to look into our CRB and review our current process and look at best practices (in other cities). Scott said the City Council will hold community forums “in the near future” to get more input.
Many victims of police brutality, like the Edgeston, seek justice through civl lawsuits. Jessenia Edgeston says her husband’s beating and arrest have had longterm consequences for her family. “I suffer from anxiety disorder; I’m on medication for anxiety now,” she says. “It was hurtful and stressful for our kids. They fear for their dad. He could have died.
”So many people have negative interactions with the police but they are afraid to speak out–even at a public forum,” she added. “They are intimidated by the police. “