New PAB director: ‘There is work getting done’ 

click to enlarge Sherry Walker-Cowart, the new interim executive director of the Police Accountability Board

PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH

Sherry Walker-Cowart, the new interim executive director of the Police Accountability Board

Sherry Walker-Cowart, the new interim executive director of the Rochester Police Accountability Board, has been a fixture in the city’s efforts to enhance police oversight.

 Walker-Cowart was formerly the chief executive officer of the Center for Dispute Settlement, the organization that oversaw the Civilian Review Board, a sort of precursor to the PAB that was tasked with reviewing incidents of misconduct investigated by the Rochester Police Department’s Professional Standards Section.

But the PAB is a different animal. Supported by the overwhelming majority of voters in a 2019 referendum, the agency was given full independence to investigate reports of misconduct and make recommendations regarding department policy. That autonomy, coupled with a $5 million budget to carry out its mission, was an unprecedented blessing for a police oversight agency.

It was also a curse.

The PAB has been embroiled in crisis after crisis over the past year. Its first executive director, Conor Dwyer Reynolds, was suspended, and later fired, after having been found to have violated multiple city policies. Meanwhile, reports of sexual harassment, discrimination, and mismanagement from all directions plagued the agency. One of those complaints, from Reynolds against former Board Chair Shani Wilson, also led to her resignation last year.

Meanwhile, the PAB has yet to complete a single investigation into officer misconduct.

On Friday, CITY sat down with Walker-Cowart to discuss the future of the PAB, its internal strife, and where it goes from here.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

CITY: I wanted to start by giving you a chance to explain why you wanted to come here and what you think you bring to the table, to the organization, and after watching everything that's happened in the past year, how you could start to right this ship. So let's start from there, what brought you here, and what do you think needs to be done?

Walker- Cowart
: What brought me here is my interest in civilian oversight and the idea of the mission of the PAB, sort of reimagining public safety that everybody wants. I had experience in civilian oversight. I also have experience as an executive director and served in some leadership positions and could bring those skills here as well. So listening to what was on the news or hearing information about it, I know that's only part of the story. But still, looking ahead, I have hope. And I believe that we can continue to do the work.

CITY: You were involved with the Civilian Review Board. What do you think is different about the PAB compared to the civilian review board?

Walker-Cowart: Well, the Civilian Review Board reviewed cases that the Professional Standards Section put together. We didn't do our own independent investigations, and we didn’t impose discipline. I know that's not determined yet, but so the PAB is looking at their disciplinary powers, and they do independent investigations. We didn't do that.

(The legislation that created the PAB granted the agency the power to impose discipline on officers, but the legality of the mandate has been challenged in a court case that has yet to be resolved.)

CITY: On the note of investigations, the PAB missed its performance metrics last year to complete a certain amount of investigations. I believe there still hasn't been any investigations completed so far. How do we get there? How do you think we can move towards actually performing those investigations and completing them?

Walker-Cowart
: Yeah, that's the million dollar question. We're going to really be looking at that very, very closely and finding out where the gaps are, what's holding us back, what the stops are, and moving it along. We just have to have to move it, and we're not clear what that is yet. I've only been here a month. But we're going to want to sort of deconstruct what's been going on and take a look at that and see what needs to happen, because that's what everybody wants.
click to enlarge Sherry Walker-Cowart was tapped as the new head of the PAB in December. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Sherry Walker-Cowart was tapped as the new head of the PAB in December.

CITY: Many changes have happened over the past year, including the firing of the original executive director, who was well liked by a lot of the employees, but also clearly broke city policy in multiple ways. There's also been a lot of resignations, and a lot of terminations over the past year. How is morale at the PAB?

Walker-Cowart
: I think it ebbs and flows. I think there's some hope. And, of course, people were impacted by all that's happened here, particularly those who've been involved in it. So I don't want to ignore that, and I know that's real. But I also want us to do whatever we can to move forward. They're still here, they're still dedicated. And that says to me that morale is at least at a level that we can move forward in the right direction.

CITY: One of the top issues among staffers seems to be the effort to unionize. There's been a lot of conversation among government officials about who exactly recognizes the union. The City Charter calls for the mayor to voluntarily recognize public employee unions. Mayor Evans has not done that. Do you support the organization of a union?

Walker-Cowart: Yeah, so I don't really have a comment about that other than if the staff is acting within their rights, then I don't necessarily have an opinion either way.

CITY: Over the past year, there were many internal complaints of discrimination and multiple complaints of sexual harassment. The amount paints a picture of an organization where there seems to be a lot of internal strife, a lot of disorganization, and a lot of fear and paranoia. Are you concerned about the work environment here right now? And how do you move forward from the issues that have been facing it for the past year?

Walker-Cowart: Yeah, that's a great question. Am I concerned? I don't know if I'm concerned. I'm certainly aware of it. I've gotten information about what's happened in the past. And that's my goal and intention, is to move forward. I want to get staff what they need and give them the support that they need to do the work. Everybody wants to do the work that you're hired to do that people are passionate about. That's what I really want to focus on with them. I'd rather spend my energy looking forward than to be concerned about what happened in the past.

CITY: What do you think is needed right now?

Walker-Cowart: Supporting them getting information, answering questions about investigations. The work of the policy team is ongoing. So, focusing on that and looking at systemic issues. There is work being done. I just don't want to give the impression that the only thing going on here is focusing on concerns that are going on with staff. There is work being done, we’re working with the board to get things done, we’re working through the investigations to move those along. There's a lot going on here that I really would like the public to know more about.

CITY: On that note, one of the big projects that I've certainly been interested in is the disciplinary matrix, which I know there’s been a good amount of work going into. Where is that project right now? What's your hope for it?

Walker-Cowart: We're actually sending off today what we have to the police chief and the Rochester Police Locust Club. I’m inviting them to meet with us if they have any questions, because we want their input as well. They've actually had it for a few months. But we’re sending it out again. And I'm looking forward to bringing some closure to that, to the extent that it makes sense with where we are in the process. So yes, a lot of work has been done, and we're moving it along to make sure that the police chief and the Locust Club can have input as well.

CITY: One of the big concerns that has come up in conversations with both the PAB and with law enforcement has been how you can have a mutual relationship with each other. I do know that among law enforcement, there is a lot of adversity to the PAB, there is a lot of opposition, at least among the rank and file. How do you build that relationship between the Police Department, the Locust Club, and the PAB?

Walker-Cowart: For me, it's about having communication. Communication is key. And having meetings, getting information, sharing information to the extent possible without violating any confidentiality issues, or any anonymity that either side needs to protect. It's an ongoing process to build that trust, and to maybe step out and take some calculated risks to help build trust between both of us.

CITY: Beyond that, too, is building trust with the general public. Are you concerned about the credibility that the organization has with the public right now? How do you start to build it?

Walker-Cowart: I'm aware of that. I mean, I hear it in the community. I'm from this community, I live in this community. So I hear it myself. I think when people begin to see the cases moving, that will help build it. When people see products, when people see those kinds of things happening, that will help bring credibility back into the organization. People have had really high hopes for what this organization could do. So we need to get back to that.
click to enlarge Walker-Cowart's appointment comes after a year of trials and tribulations for the nascent city agency. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Walker-Cowart's appointment comes after a year of trials and tribulations for the nascent city agency.

CITY: How close do you think you are to actually completing any investigations?

Walker-Cowart: I’ll find that out. I have a meeting scheduled, so I’ll find that out in a few days, but that's one of my focus areas for sure.

CITY: One of the other big things of note is the budget for the PAB, which is somewhat in limbo right now on whether it's going to stay the same for the next budget cycle. I know there are many conversations happening at City Council about that. Is that a concern for you? And could the PAB function without a $5 million budget, or with a smaller amount?

Walker-Cowart: As I continue to study and learn the budget, I'm not aware that $5 million was spent. So I think that that's a number that's out in the community, that $5 million, and finding out what have you done with it. So yeah, we're looking at the budget process and making sure, and we definitely need the resources, staff tools, all those things to make this work. Whatever that funding comes to, that's the primary focus. Do we have enough people, enough tools and everything else that we need to make it work that's the best to be efficient and effective?

CITY: The organization of the PAB right now and the way it's structured is very much a product of what Reynolds designed when he was here. Now that you're the executive director, do you have any vision for how you'd like to change the organization here or how things are laid out?

Walker-Cowart: I'm actually in the process of looking at that now. Having been in a month and coming in with fresh eyes, I see some opportunities where there may be some synergies, maybe some shifts within the organization. But I'm not at the point to share that in detail right now.

CITY: The big question for me, and for the public as well, is where do we go from here? Are you hopeful that the ship can be righted here and the PAB can become the organization that was overwhelmingly supported by city voters in the referendum in November 2019.

There was a lot of hope that this thing would change the way police were held accountable in this community, and change transparency in the department, and make an actual difference. I don't think it's judgmental to say, so far, it has been somewhat of a disappointment in that regard.

Walker-Cowart: I am absolutely hopeful. I wouldn't have come here if I had not had faith and belief. More than hope, belief, that we can turn this around and do what needs to be done. The citizens of Rochester spoke. They want more accountability, and they want to see how that's done. And I'm hopeful that we can do that. I am with the staff every day. They're so committed to the work that we're doing. They're so committed to doing what the charge is and living up to their mission. So short answer, yes. I'm hopeful.

CITY: There was a prevalent belief among staff that there were, especially over the last eight months, some terminations that were wrongful. Is there any plan to hire back any of the people that were terminated under Acting Manager (Duwaine) Bascoe?

Walker-Cowart: That's not a plan that I have at this point.

CITY: Do you think there's something I missed here that you'd like to get out there? Anything you might want to get off your chest, now’s the time.

Walker-Cowart: I think the message that I want people to understand is that there is work being done. The details of investigation work is being done. The work of the policy team is being done.

People are coming here every day, they're not just sitting there. They're doing a tremendous amount of work. Our board of volunteers is constantly being trained. They're constantly working to make this come to fruition based on the mission and the vision. So I just want people to know that things are being done. And I'm believing that they'll see the product of that. That's what people want to see. They want to see the results. We want to see the return on the investment they're making as taxpayers.

CLARIFICATION: This article has been modified to clarify that the PAB has yet to complete an investigation into officer misconduct. An earlier version suggested that the PAB had yet to complete an investigation of any kind.

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected].

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