Police Accountability Board demands independence as it seeks to hire 

click to enlarge Police Accountability Board Chair Shani Wilson.


Police Accountability Board Chair Shani Wilson.

The Rochester Police Accountability Board is again demanding that it be able to hire who it wants, when it wants, over the objections of prominent city officials.

The two sides are at odds over a memo from the city’s human resources director asserting that any potential employee be approved by the president of City Council.

The memo follows a 10-month long conflict over the fledgling Police Accountability Board’s relationship to Council, whose leaders have stated that the agency operates under the body’s oversight and authority. But the PAB’s members and its executive director, Conor Dwyer Reynolds, argue that it is — and was intended to be — independent of Council.

In this year’s budget, which was proposed by Mayor Lovely Warren and narrowly approved by Council members, the Police Accountability Board was allocated a hefty $5 million. The figure was based partly on the agency’s goal of hiring 55 staffers to handle operations and assist with board investigations.

So far, the Police Accountability Board has hired three staff members. Board leaders have said that they’ve been hamstrung by City Council, whose top officers have contended that the body oversees the agency.

“The board, the nine community members that represent the city, would not be ultimately responsible for supervising the staff,” said Board Chair Shani Wilson, in a news conference Tuesday morning. “Instead, the president of City Council would have the power to control and fire our staff. This new plan fits in a longstanding pattern of behavior from the city that seeks to undermine our ability to operate independently.”

The latest clash between Police Accountability Board leaders and city officials grew out of an Aug. 30 e-mail from city human resources director Tassie Demps to Reynolds, executive director of the PAB, stating that the agency will not be able to extend offers for employment without Scott’s approval.

On Sept. 3, the Police Accountability Board’s pro-bono attorney, Phillip Urofsky, fired off a response to city attorneys Patrick Beath and Shani Mitchell, in which he argued that the city charter ensures the board’s autonomy.

“The City Council is not an Administrative Department under the Charter. However, even if City Council were an Administrative Department, as discussed above, the PAB is not a unit of, nor does it report to, the City Council,” the letter reads.

Scott did not immediately return a request for comment.

Danielle Tucker, vice chair of the Police Accountability Board, said that if the agency does not have full independence, it will be ripe for political influence from City Hall.

“When I signed to serve on the PAB, I signed up to serve in a government agency which was trusting, transparent, and uncompromised by politics,” Tucker said. “How can the people trust us if politicians can veto our every move?”

Scott will be retiring from her position as Council President in January, which would likely leave Council Vice President Willie Lightfoot filling the position. Wilson expressed concern that the PAB’s authority would be further in question under Lightfoot’s leadership.

During conversations surrounding Reynolds’s appointment in November, Lightfoot had referred to the prospect of an independent board as “ridiculous.”

“I’m concerned, honestly,” Wilson said. “Vice President Lightfoot is a really nice person, but I am worried about what the PAB will be looking forward to in the very near future.”

The Police Accountability Board was established after a 2019 public vote where it was overwhelmingly approved. But before it could get off the ground it was hobbled by a court ruling that stripped the board of its ability to discipline Rochester Police Department officers. In June, a panel of state Appellate Division judges upheld that ruling.

Under that decision, the board will still be able to subpoena documents, make recommendations, and investigate claims of misconduct.

The city has said it intends to appeal the Appellate Division panel’s decision.

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

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