Federal lawsuit alleges brutality by Rochester police

Race in America

ROCHESTER, NY – SEPTEMBER 19: Police tape lines a crime scene after a shooting at a backyard party on September 19, 2020, Rochester, New York. Two young adults – a man and a woman – were reportedly killed, and 14 people were injured in the shooting early Saturday morning on the 200th block of Pennsylvania Avenue, located in the city’s Marketview Heights neighborhood. Police say several dozen shots were fired. (Photo by Joshua Rashaad McFadden/Getty Images)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (NewsNation Now) — A lawsuit filed Monday accuses Rochester officials of allowing a culture of police brutality against racial minorities to fester and asks a court to force reforms.

Rochester based activist group Free the People ROC, The National Lawyers Guild Rochester chapter, and 10 individuals have filed a lawsuit against the City of Rochester, Rochester Police Department leadership, and more Monday with claims of excessive force and historically racist practices.

“In the year since RPD officers killed Daniel Prude, an unarmed Black man in the midst of a mental health crisis, the Department has deployed violent, unjustified force in response to peaceful protests to end police brutality; and RPD officers have handcuffed and pepper sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl and fatally shot another Black man having a mental health crisis,” a statement from attorneys said Monday.

The civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of potentially “hundreds, if not thousands” of people it claims have been victimized by officers over the last three years, including while protesting last year in the wake of the revelation of the death of Daniel Prude.

The suit, which asks for class status, describes a pattern of “deliberate indifference” by officials going back more than 40 years.

“The city needs to stop aiding in the discrimination, murder and abuse of Black and brown folks. There has been enough talk about reform, the time to take action is now,” said plaintiff Winona Miller, 52, who said she was tightly handcuffed and kneed in the stomach while being arrested during a peaceful protest in front of City Hall in September. Charges of disorderly conduct were dismissed the following month.

The 96-page lawsuit names Mayor Lovely Warren and former Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, who retired in the fallout from Prude’s death. Other defendants include the city of Rochester, Monroe County and various unidentified police officers, sheriff’s deputies and New York state troopers.

According to the lawsuit, a five-year analysis of Rochester police data found that officers’ use of force was overwhelmingly against people of color: 66.8% against Black people and 11.5% against Hispanic people.

“Defendants agreed among themselves and with other individuals to act in concert in order to deprive plaintiffs of their constitutional rights, including but not limited to their right to be free from excessive force, their right to equal protection of the law, and their right to free speech,” according to the filing in U.S. District Court in Rochester.

A police reform plan recently approved by the City Council as part of a statewide mandate lacks substance, according to the plaintiffs, and ignored proposals from the Police Accountability Board, a citizen board empowered to investigate misconduct.

The lawsuit requests the appointment of an independent monitor to reform city policing policies.

“This lawsuit is our way to demand a seat at the table and to force real change within the city and RPD,” said plaintiff Stanley Martin, a City Council candidate and organizer with activist group Free the People ROC, one of two groups — along with National Lawyers Guild Rochester — listed as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit includes photographs of bruised and bloodied protesters after clashes with police in the days following the September release of police body camera video showing Prude’s detention six months earlier.

“The city, in keeping with its long history, responded with the use of extreme violence and militarized police tactics — including deploying batons, tear gas, flash-bang grenades, armored vehicles, and police dogs — to intimidate the protesters,” according to the filing. “Over the course of just three days, Rochester Police Department officers severely injured hundreds of protesters.”

Attorney Katie McCarthy attributed much of the problem to the makeup of the police department, whose officers are mostly white and live outside the city, along with a lack of serious consequences for officers accused of wrongdoing.

“They don’t live here, they don’t pay taxes here but they commute in to police the people and protect the property that isn’t even theirs,” McCarthy said during a video news conference. “There’s a huge disconnect when you have a city that is predominantly Black and brown people being policed by this outside white police force, and that goes back decades.”

A statement Monday morning from the attorneys who filed the lawsuit said in part: “The lawsuit details over 50 incidents of excessive force and racist ideology within the Department. What appears is a pattern of unconstitutional policing that has been allowed to fester while City and RPD officials remain deliberately indifferent. RPD officers who use excessive force against the people of Rochester face little or no punishment—instead they are often promoted and commended. Officers who have used racial slurs and even officers with admitted ties to groups that espouse white supremacist ideology face little or no consequence.”

“The RPD uses excessive force during routine interactions with citizens in Rochester every day,” said plaintiff Anthony Hall in a press release. “Their instant reaction is to escalate the situation and use force. If you don’t do exactly what they want, they’ll throw you on the ground and pepper-spray you, that’s what they did to the nine-year-old girl and that’s what they did to the mother and her three-year-old.”

When details of Prude’s death first became public in September, it sparked a month long series of protests in the city, often featuring violent clashes between demonstrators and police. In January of this year, Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan announced new protest response policies.

City of Rochester Communication Director Justin Roj released a statement Monday afternoon in response to the lawsuit:

“Mayor Warren welcomes a review by the United States Department of Justice. In fact, in September of last year, Mayor Warren formally called upon them to conduct a thorough investigation of the Rochester Police Department and to offer reforms to address any and all civil rights violations that might be found.

Everyone wants a Rochester that encompasses safer more vibrant neighborhoods, more jobs and greater educational opportunities; and promoting a police department that works with its citizens leads to that goal.

In addition, the City’s recently adopted Executive Order 203 response to reform and reinvent policing in Rochester includes meaningful reforms including: the ability for the Mayor to fire officers for cause, revising the federal consent order that effectively caps the number of minority officers at 25%, requiring newly hired officers to live in the city and numerous other changes to limit the use of force by officers. Mayor Warren is dedicated to implementing these reforms building upon her record of ensuring that all officers wear and use body-worn cameras, eliminating red light cameras and creating Rochester’s Person In Crisis teams.

Also, under Chief Herriott-Sullivan, at Mayor Warren’s direction, RPD has adopted a revised protest response plan to ensure a proportional and just response to community actions.”

Read the full lawsuit:

NewsNation affiliate WROC and The Associated Press contributed to this report

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