Rochester, N.Y., Wants To Reimagine Police. What Do People Imagine That Means?
This story is part of an NPR series, We Hold These Truths, on American democracy.
Stanley Martin was one of the Black Lives Matter activists who organized last year's protests in Rochester, N.Y. She pushed to change policing from outside the system.
This year, Martin is seeking change from the inside, running in the Rochester City Council primary on June 22. Her focus: "reimagining" public safety. To Martin, this means a radical new plan to abolish the police gradually.
She made that pitch on a recent afternoon when she walked from house to house, consulting a phone app that gave names of frequent voters. The app led her from one door to another in Beechwood, one of the city's southeastern neighborhoods.
"Rethinking public safety is a priority issue for me," replied Paola Betchart, who came to her door with a small boy in a Black Lives Matter shirt.
Of nearly 20 candidates for five at-large council seats, Martin embraces one of the most far-reaching concepts. She imagines a future in which the police force is slowly supplanted by services that take alternative approaches to crime. Other candidates and officials also talk of "reimagining" police — though they mean the same word very differently.
The debate over policing is national, driven by anger over videos of police encounters. But any significant changes to policing must be local, because state and local governments control most of the 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies across the United States. Local elections will influence the future of public safety. NPR met with key players in a city where elections are rapidly approaching.
A city torn
Rochester's elections may turn, in part, on a series of high-profile encounters involving police. The city is where Daniel Prude, a man with mental health and drug issues, died in 2020 after being taken into police custody. It's where police were criticized for a militaristic response to last year's protests over policing. And it's where video showed police pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl early this year.
Interviews with residents in downtown Rochester found almost no one who was unconcerned. Mary Myers grew tearful: "As a teacher, that 9-year-old just breaks my heart that nobody put their arm around her and said, 'How can I help you?' " There was also sympathy for law enforcement in a city the FBI has ranked with one of the highest rates of violent crime. "It's kind of a 50-50 thing," Lisa Thompson said. "The police are there to make sure that everyone's safe. I just think that the way they approach the situation could be better."
This industrial city, built around waterfalls on the Genesee River, is still recovering from the decline of its famous tech firms, such as Kodak and Xerox, which gave Rochester a cutting-edge economy in the 20th century. The loss of that employment triggered a broader economic downturn, though Kodak's old tower still stands, and its former industrial park is partly filled with newer business ventures. Former office towers downtown have been converted to apartments; several residents we met were recent arrivals who lived in them.
Rochester's parks and streets are decorated with more than a dozen statues of Frederick Douglass, who lived in Rochester after escaping from slavery in the 1800s, making the city his base for his abolitionist newspaper. Today his likeness looks out over a city that is 48% white and 40% Black, while many other residents identify as Latino or Asian.
The city's diversity has led in recent years to diverse government: Many leading voices on all sides of the debate over policing are Black — including the mayor, the police chief, the previous chief and key City Council members as well as activists such as Martin.
If Douglass could be an abolitionist, Martin said, so can she.
Aware that some regard her proposals as extreme, she insisted she arrived at her views gradually after bitter experience. "It's not this wild idea," she said.
Martin's journey began with a frustrated effort at more modest change. She previously directed a nonprofit that focused on alternatives to incarceration, and in 2019, joined the campaign in Rochester over a referendum on policing.
"I was of the mindset that police could be reformed," Martin recalled. She took on a senior role on the Police Accountability Board Alliance, which advocated better civilian oversight of police. The group drafted legislation creating an outside body to investigate and punish police misconduct. The measure passed overwhelmingly in a 2019 referendum. The board now exists and holds regular meetings.
But to Martin's frustration, a lawsuit by the local police union has blocked many of its powers. Today its website cautions: "The PAB currently lacks the power to discipline officers found guilty of wrongdoing."
"That allowed me to start thinking about why we even have police officers," Martin said.
Constant friction between people of color and the Rochester police "informed my position as finally saying, you know what, I am an abolitionist, and I do not believe that we need prisons or police to solve the problems we have."
Martin said the police would only gradually be dismantled and replaced; people trained to deal with mental health crises, for example, might have been the ones to show up for Prude. When force is truly necessary, there might be a security force similar to present-day police but with better training, she said.
National surveys show limited support for abolition or the related concept of defunding police. Even fellow progressive candidates, running together as "The People's Slate," do not sign on to the concept, and Martin speaks of it carefully — thus the phrase "reimagining public safety."
"We chose to focus on reimagining public safety using language that we feel people can grasp more versus using language people may not understand right away," she said.
One significant hurdle is voters concerned about crime. When Martin knocked on the door of Joyce Newton, she named it as one of the neighborhood's major issues. "Everywhere you look, you see little memorials, and especially when you remember the people that died in those memorials, that is traumatic." There were 44 homicides in Rochester in 2020, the highest count in many years, and the city is on pace to exceed that number in 2021.
Martin replied that the city should look to crime prevention. "Violence prevention programs interrupt before it gets to this point," she said.
A Rochester resident with a more traditional view is La'Ron Singletary, born and raised in the city.
When we asked where we might meet, he suggested Madison Park, home of one of the city's many statues of Douglass. In this sculpture he is having tea with Susan B. Anthony, the women's suffrage activist, who was arrested around the corner after trying to vote in the presidential election of 1872.
Singletary has known the city well since boyhood. Back then his dad, a Xerox employee, bought him a police scanner, Singletary said, and he'd ride his bike to crime scenes. Officers got to know him and became mentors when he later joined the force.
"It was about helping people," Singletary said. "It was about being outside. It was about doing something different. Each call is different."
Singletary said he led the way in establishing a community policing unit, and rose to become chief of police even though some friends and family questioned his career choice. "I'm an African American who grew up in the city of Rochester," Singletary said, "so nobody can tell me how to be Black."
Black police officers are forced, he said, "to do a lot of thinking." After the 2020 protests against George Floyd's killing, he said, he would sit with officers of color and ask each other, "What is going on? What can we do? Are we in the right profession?"
Singletary decided to stay, describing policing as "a calling" that was not fundamentally racist. "I don't think you have racist departments. I think you may have people with racist attitudes. ... People talk about 400 years of oppression and systems that have been built up. That's not going to change overnight," he said, insisting that he was working to change police practices with "one of the most diverse command staffs in our department's history."
But he was not to last in the job much longer, thanks in part to Martin.
In September, six months after Prude's death, authorities finally released a video showing police taking him into custody. The video showed a naked man prone and writhing on a snowy Rochester street. Police surrounded Prude, and eventually placed a "spit hood" over his head. The cause of death was ruled to be asphyxia.
Although a grand jury charged no one in Prude's death, Martin described it to fellow protesters as "murder" and "state-sanctioned violence." Protesters demanded that the mayor, district attorney and police chief resign over failure to disclose accurate details of Prude's death for months.
The mayor didn't resign but announced the chief was retiring.
An independent investigation eventually accused the mayor of withholding information about Prude's death and accused Singletary of a misleading claim that Prude was "resisting arrest." Singletary insisted that he was unfairly targeted.
"I'm from the community you're from. I understand the issues that you have," he said, "and I'm trying to fix that."
Singletary insisted he still believes in the mission of policing, and he chuckled when asked about the idea of abolition.
"That'll never happen," he said. "You will always have an element within society that will try to take advantage of people who cannot defend themselves."
Yet as he talked of policing's future, Singletary used the same word that Martin did. He said the city was "looking at now possibly reimagining police."
By "reimagining," Singletary meant rethinking training to be sure officers can serve as mental health counselors, teachers, lawyers and other roles in which they can sometimes be thrust. "That way, we can hopefully prevent incidents like what happened with Mr. Prude."
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said she favors change. She told NPR that police are "a military organization that technically is supposed to answer to civilians. That doesn't mesh well."
After dismissing Singletary, Warren brought in a new chief, Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, a retired former member of the force. In an interview, Herriott-Sullivan described police relations with the community as "damaged." The new chief also acknowledged resentment within the ranks after Singletary's departure.
She nevertheless has pushed the force to be less confrontational with protesters, more patient in hazardous situations and generally more careful even when they feel the law gives them "discretion" to use force. "Sometimes we have to make this critical statement to ourselves: Just because we can, should we?"
The city is also piloting new "Person in Crisis" teams, trained to provide a "non-law enforcement" response to people with drug abuse or mental health problems.
Establishing such teams is far from abolishing the police, yet it applies a similar principle to the one that animates Martin: Police and prisons are not the best answers to certain problems.
Martin's opponents in the crowded June primary include several current at-large council members, among them Willie Lightfoot, the council vice president. Lightfoot is a National Guard veteran, retired firefighter and a businessman, whose enterprises include a barbershop next to his office.
As electric clippers buzzed next door, Lightfoot said he felt comfortable seeking reelection against someone who wants to abolish the police.
"There are still a lot of our seniors and a lot of folks who want our police," Lightfoot said. "And when they call 911, they expect a police officer to show up."
Yet in conversation, Lightfoot, too, talks of "reimagining policing." His barbershop and office are down the street from where Prude died; memorials to his memory are painted on the street.
Lightfoot was a member of a commission on racial equity that called for a range of reforms, such as ending traffic stops for minor offenses and making prison a last resort for crime.
"I deal a lot with addicts," Lightfoot said, "and the biggest step [is] when they come to [the] acknowledgement that they have a problem. We in this city have acknowledged that we have a problem, and we're taking steps to fix it."
Rochester's dialogue is changing. The June election may reveal how much further it evolves.
Chad Campbell and Arezou Rezvani produced and edited the audio story. contributed to this story
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