Racial and Structural Equity Commission releases final report 

click to enlarge Former Mayor Bill Johnson: It's time to push for change in the process.


Former Mayor Bill Johnson: It's time to push for change in the process.

The Commission on Racial and Structural Equity (RASE)  has released its final report, which contains a series of recommendations intended to reverse or mitigate racial inequality in Rochester and Monroe County.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and County Executive Adam Bello convened the RASE Commission in June in the wake of local and national protests over the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The commission was tasked with reviewing laws, practices, policies, and programs across city and county government and recommending changes to make them more equitable.

"We can't fall into finding excuses for why things can not be done," said commission co-chair Bill Johnson. "Now, the burden is on all of us to figure out ways to make things happen, to make things better, to end these disparities, to end the inequities that have been baked into our system for generations."

The nearly 300-page final report, dubbed "No Time for Excuses: It's Time for Action" is the culmination of nearly eight months of community input. Dozens of community leaders, activists, non-profit workers, police officers, mental health professionals, and residents either served on working groups or provided comments as the plan was being drafted and finalized.

The report's recommendations echo a number of progressive talking points that have seen increased momentum over the past year. The recommendations include setting the minimum wage at $15 an hour, increasing access to mental health and emotional support services for Black people, indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC), as well as fully funding community alternatives to police, such as crisis intervention specialists and community mediators.

The report also recommends creating a racial justice task force which will meet quarterly to review disparities in criminal justice and recommend further changes.

As noted by Johnson and co-chairs Arline Santiago, a senior vice president at ESL Federal Credit Union, and Nazareth professor Muhammad Shafiq, some of these recommendations will require action on the state or federal level. Others, such as increasing cultural competency training for Rochester Police Department officers, could begin immediately at little cost, Shafiq said.

"It's not spending a lot of money, and I don't think it's only the police department that needs training," Shafiq said. "One thing I've seen is the police training goes on law enforcement, in other words, you must enforce the law. There is no humane understanding in police training."
click to enlarge RASE co-chair Muhammad Shafiq. - PHOTO BY GINO FANELLI
  • RASE co-chair Muhammad Shafiq.

Two members of the commission, Special Assistant Public Defender Danielle Ponder and Director of Spritus Christi Prison Outreach Damond Wilson, dissented from the report. Wilson and Ponder argue in favor of reparations, and funding a "community chest" from which Black city and county residents could access funds for housing, entrepreneurship, legal expenses, and a variety of other purposes. The chest would be funded by expected revenue from the legalization of marijuana, reallocation of tax revenue, and excise taxes.

Ponder and Wilson, in their letter of dissent, argue the report is not substantial if it does not address the wealth gap between white and Black Monroe County residents.

"We believe that any recommendation short of addressing the economic wealth gap between African Americans and White Americans is peripheral and an insubstantial attempt to redress racial and structural equity," the letter reads.

The report also has no power to actually compel changes, but requires the cooperation of city and county officials to submit new laws and procedures to meet the goals of the report.

Johnson, who has served on a number of similar panels in the past, dating back to 1977's Citizens Committee on Police Affairs, said he is confident that this time around substantive change will be seen.

"In my career I've been on a number of these commissions, and it's really bugged me to spend weeks, months, and sometimes years working on something, and then nothing happens, nothing happens, it's just as though we didn't spend a minute on it," Johnson said. "I said to the mayor, "Mayor, you know by asking me to be a part of this, I'm not going to be a part of a sham process, not at this stage of my life."

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