ROCHESTER, N.Y. – A lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court for Western New York asserts sweeping change is necessary to reform what it describes as the racist, predatory, brutal culture and actions of the Rochester Police Department.
The lawsuit comes a little more than a year after the death of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who was restrained by Rochester officers until he asphyxiated and lost consciousness, later dying in hospital.
“Absent external enforcement, the system will not change itself,” according to the 96-page filing that outlines constitutional and civil rights violations allegedly perpetrated by Rochester police over the last 50 years.
Named in the lawsuit are Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren, former Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, interim Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, the city of Rochester, Monroe County Executive Adam Bello, Sheriff Todd Baxter, other members of RPD’s command staff, members of the New York State Police and other law enforcement officers, including 200 “John Does.”
The complaint was filed by five law firms on behalf of 10 named plaintiffs and two groups — Free The People Roc and the National Lawyers Guild Rochester LLC. Most were involved in protests over the death of Prude. Included among the law firms are Neufeld Scheck and Brustin LLP, of New York, a firm that specializes in prosecuting alleged police misconduct and possible civil rights violations.
A press conference about the lawsuit was expected Monday afternoon.
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Lawyers who filed the suit seek class-action status and are demanding an independent federal monitor to reform the Rochester Police Department’s “policies and practices with regard to the use of force, racially-biased policing, and policing (of) demonstrations.”
Federal monitors have been assigned to police agencies in cities where civil rights violations or patterns of abuse are systemic. Los Angeles went into a 12-year period of oversight following the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.
Rochester’s police department operates with a sense of impunity and officers face no recourse or discipline for unlawful or racist actions, the lawsuit argues.
At the heart of the lawsuit is the allegation that, “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”, the lawyers say.
Federal oversight is needed because city officials have, for decades, “responded with deliberate indifference to this problem,” the filing states.
Accusations of unconstitutional policing
The complaint’s narrative begins in September, when the public first learned of the in-custody death of Prude, which took place nearly six months before a Sept. 2 press conference by his family. Three officers restrained Prude until he asphyxiated and lost consciousness, later dying in hospital.
The lawsuit alleges police responded with excessive force to protests held after Prude’s death became public and “severely injured hundreds of protesters” with their tactics.
Video footage of RPD’s encounters with protesters was destroyed, despite a preservation letter sent by a lawyer immediately after the demonstrations, the lawsuit contends.
Citing findings from a doctoral dissertation written by a former RPD officer, lawyers claim that city police use more severe and frequent force in Rochester neighborhoods with larger numbers of Black and Hispanic residents.
“Time and time again, going back decades, the City and RPD have made hollow promises of reform but the culture of violent, racialized policing has not changed,” the lawsuit states.
The city’s “stubborn refusal to confront the pervasive problem of racism” in the Police Department also is demonstrated in the recent approval of a state-mandated future of policing plan for the city that does little to change these patterns and was crafted without transparency, lawyers said.
The complaint points to the millions of dollars spent by the city to settle police brutality lawsuits as symptomatic.
In the past 10 years, the city was named as a defendant in more than 40 federal lawsuits that accused city police officers of excessive force.
This latest complaint cites two incidents — one in 2013 and the other in 2016 — where officers brutalized Black men. The city paid out more than $1 million to settle those two cases, and all the officers involved are still employed by RPD.
Excessive force and the Prude protests
Over 30 pages of the complaint are devoted to a detailed breakdown of the September protests.
The timeline is accompanied by dramatic and sometimes graphic photos of the injuries sustained by members of the public including the named plaintiffs.
On Sept. 2, activists, lawyers, and Prude family members hosted a press conference at City Hall, where the released footage of Prude’s encounter with police was released. It was revealed that the “City and RPD had suppressed the body worn camera footage to cover up the RPD’s responsibility for Mr. Prude’s death,” the suit states.
“Within hours, Rochester would resemble a war zone, with the RPD, NYS Troopers, and MCSO officers unleashing flash grenades, tear gas, and thousands of pepper balls on the crowd,” the filing reads. Later in the evening, officers were called back inside the Public Safety Building and commanded to “forcibly ‘retake the loop’ and push protesters back inside to the street,” the complaint alleges.
Painting a stark portrait of police-protester interactions, lawyers compared law enforcement tactics on Sept. 4 to “a scene tragically reminiscent of the 1965 ‘Bloody Sunday’ attack on civil rights demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.”
Protesters were “kettled” or penned in on a bridge through the use of “heavily armored phalanxes of police using pepper balls, 40mm kinetic bullets, tear gas, and batons to assault diverse groups of protesters outfitted only with umbrellas, cardboard boxes, and plastic children’s sleds against RPD’s military-grade arsenal…”
The protesters were ordered to disperse, but they had nowhere to go.
At least 16 officers fired pepper balls, lawyers say. One plaintiff, Nicholas Robertson, a Black man and RIT criminal justice professor, suffered permanent scarring after he was hit in the head by the devices.
Based on statements by city and police officials, “no RPD officers have been disciplined for their unlawful use of force on September 2, 3, 4 or 5, 2020.”
Failure to train, supervise and discipline officers
Lawyers say the city is “deliberately indifferent” to the overwhelming and obvious need to discipline officers who use excessive force against people.
“Instead, the RPD has maintained a sham internal disciplinary system that consistently and deliberately fails to discipline substantial numbers of officers who are known to have engaged in racist policing and unlawful use of force,” according to the lawsuit.
Between 2008 and 2013, the department’s internal investigation did not sustain any civilian excessive force complaints, the lawsuit states, but during that same period police officers killed one Black man and many others were brutalized.
The complaint says police chiefs sustained only 1.7% of the 923 civilian-generated complaints between 2001 and 2016.
Officers routinely fail to report uses of force, and even when a complaint is made, the complaint says the department “systemically fails to conduct meaningful investigations,” which signals to officers that “they can engage in unnecessary and excessive force with impunity because their lies and attempts to cover up wrongdoing will not be questioned.”
Instead of disciplining officers who engage in “racist, violent policing,” the lawsuit states that “the RPD has a practice of commending and promoting officers who have credible (or even sustained) allegations of excessive force.”
RPD has a deep-seated and decades-old history of racist behavior; it’s a part of the department culture, the suit states. The department is overwhelming white and 94% of the 701 sworn officers don’t live in the city.
The department is “wholly separate from the community it is meant to serve,” the suit states.
One officer created a “ghetto lingo” memo in 2002 with “over 70 street slang terms and definitions.” He was fired, but then re-hired four years later.
The complaint outlines numerous instances where officers use racial epithets and faced little or no consequences.
Rochester police officers often use the “cover charges” of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and obstruction of governmental administration to mask the illegality of some arrests, the complaint argues.
The lawsuit is signed by lawyers from the firms Baker & Hostetler LLP, Neufeld Scheck & Brustin, LLP, Easton Thompson Kasperek Shiffrin LLP, Roth & Roth, LLP, and the Law Office of Joshua Moskovitz, P.C.
The lawsuit also requests compensatory and punitive damages to the plaintiffs, including lawyers fees, costs and interest.
Follow reporter Will Cleveland on Twitter: @willcleveland13
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