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Rochester’s Civilian Review Board: Like a Tootsie Roll of Bias?

Rachel Barnhart ( @rachbarnhart ) turns in this article, looking into the Civilian Review Board and its operation. As she notes, the recent arrests of Emily Good and Willie Lightfoot have prompted calls for more scrutiny about the means by which allegations of RPD officer misconduct are investigated. The article does a great job outlining the process (PDF).

The thing that jumped out at me initially is this: the RPD’s Professional Standards office decides when a case goes to the CRB, the RPD officers also train the members of that board, and then the Chief of Police makes the final decision as to the fate of the case. So basically, the beginning, middle and end of the process is either directly result of, or else biased by, RPD involvement. Its like the RPD is a wrapper around the entire process.

Late update: important to note that *all* cases of reported police violence go to the CRB.

And while a closer look at the actual report doesn’t really suggest a lot of bias, it is not without a few clues to systemic problems. In fact, the report actually lists out (page 4) the current outstanding reports, with the verdicts of the PSS and CRB. These are the items left over from last year, still awaiting the Chief of Police’s final word. With thirty outstanding reports from last year, when there were only 32 cases reported in that year, its hard not to agree with the complaint that the process must be very lengthy. On page 2 of the report, the process by which cases are decided seems to indicate a potential endless loop of cases sent back and forth between the Chief and CRB.

Moreover, while some contend that the PSS is generally harder on cops than the CRB, the snapshot of outstanding reports does not bespeak that. There are two cases where the PSS found the claim to be “Unfounded,” but the CRB disagreed. In one case, an alleged act of police violence was found exonerated by the PSS but sustained by the CRB.

Ultimately, though, the real trouble is that these cases are examined by a small group of people entirely outside the public eye. Worse, the process seems to happen outside even the claimant’s ability to observe the process. Nobody gets to see inside the Tootsie Roll wrapper.

As the Emily Good story progressed, more than one person has commented that the appropriate way to deal with an act of police misconduct is to do as they ask, then report the incident later. But if filing a report means filling out a form and shoving it into a black hole for maybe a year before you get any verdict at all, what reason is there to trust that process? Nowhere in the report does the CRB acknowledge any particular requirement to inform the claimant of the status – nor really, even to ask them any questions – until after the process is finished. That doesn’t really sound like justice, even if it is ultimately fair. The fairness of the investigation, or lack thereof, isn’t something that the report can really provide any insight to.

Calls for a wholly new process of handling police misconduct seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, though I’m prepared to admit that I’m wrong. In the meanwhile, the minimum we should be allowed to ask is for regular updates and some sort of public database – even if it is anonymized – of reported incidents.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

2 replies on “Rochester’s Civilian Review Board: Like a Tootsie Roll of Bias?”

Fox guards henhouse? The news to me isn’t that Ms. Good was set free, that should have been a slam-dunk. The news to me is why these cops are not only not in jail themselves, but still have their jobs?!

I’m less worried about what happens to the cop and much more worried about how what does or does not happen to any cop so accused gets reported out. I actually think that, while there’s lots of room for judgement and opinion on the issue, I don’t really think the guy deserves to lose his job. If he was freaked out and overreacted, well, he needs training and maybe some time off. The question remains: why did the other cops in the situation not intervene and let her go. But the absence of civic involvement strikes me as the primary problem with at least this one facet of the story.

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