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Rochester's Police Accountability Board On Slow, Controversial Start

Since June, Rochester, N.Y.’s Police Accountability Board (PAB) has received more than 200 reports on police conduct from the community. Six months later, the oversight agency with a proposed $5 million budget has yet to produce a single complete investigation. Instead, the city agency, approved by ballot in 2019 and founded on the ideals of transparency and justice, has faced an outside investigation of its executive director, who was ultimately fired, the naming and removal of his replacement, and repeated accusations of mismanagement from its employees, reports the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. Critics of the board, some of them on the City Council, are saying the agency needs to be restructured or dissolved. PAB advocates argue that it needs more time and support to develop. At a heated public meeting, City Council President Miguel Melendez called the PAB a “failing agency.” He presented legislation that would put the board under the control of the city’s Department of Human Resources Management, which reports to Mayor Malik Evans. “I am committed to getting things back on track so this agency can finally do the work that it has never actually done,” Melendez said. The vote was postponed after a fierce debate during which some council members accused Melendez and the mayor of failing to seek public input. Councilmember Stanley Martin said that the PAB was designed to exist independently from the mayor’s office so it could pursue accountability without fear of political influence. “The PAB is for the community ― not for you. Not for Malik,” Martin charged.

The PAB’s pace is unsurprising given that it is starting from scratch and lacks nearby examples of agencies of a similar size to draw from, said Cameron McEllhiney of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Rochester’s PAB was given vast authority and needs strong leadership to get off the ground, McEllhiney said. The bigger the agency, the more is required to get it up and running,” she said. “Even in the best circumstances, it takes a long time.” One crucial step to success is building legitimacy within the community. Politicians who pledge support for police oversight during moments of public tumult must also provide long-term guidance and stay the course when challenges arise, McEllhiney said. For months, current and former PAB employees have described the PAB as a toxic place to work. They point to unjust firings and mismanagement as a major reason for its lack of progress with investigations. Then-employee Brandy Cooper became the face of employees’ unionization push but ultimately was fired for what she believed was retaliation for her union activity. A city spokesperson confirmed that dozens of complaints about conditions inside the PAB have been made to federal, state, and city agencies and said "all complaints have been/are being addressed."


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