“I wept,” Brown said after the dead man was identified as Tyshon Jones, her 21-year-old cousin.
But the pastor, a prominent local activist, wasn’t surprised by the repeated violence, all of which involved police using force against the city’s Black residents.
The way policing is conducted in Rochester “is dangerous for us,” Brown said. “We are not safe.”
In 2020, a year when cities nationwide were convulsed by protests over police brutality, Rochester was among a handful of places — including Minneapolis, Louisville and Kenosha, Wis. — that became emblems of the movement. The death in police custody of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who asphyxiated after officers pinned him to the ground, provided local impetus for a demand heard coast to coast that America fundamentally rethink its approach to law enforcement.
Yet now, even with the glare of national attention and with a multi-front push for reform, controversial police use-of-force incidents continue to accumulate in Rochester. The result has been widespread outrage — and amplified calls for a dramatic overhaul of the city’s policing, rather than incremental measures.
“It’s particularly egregious that, even with the worldwide spotlight, the behavior isn’t changing. And it seems to be getting worse,” said Mary Lupien, a member of the city council. “That blows my mind.”
Rochester’s experience reflects nationwide trends. Despite the intense focus on police brutality and the high-decibel demands for change last year following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, fatal police shootings continued at roughly the same pace as they have since 2015, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post.
Nor has the pace diminished this year, with 213 people fatally shot by officers as of late March. Since The Post began tracking the shootings in 2015, Black Americans have been killed at more than twice the rate of White Americans.
Lupien said Prude’s death last year focused attention on long-standing problems in Rochester, some of which are common to communities across the country and others that are more specific to New York’s third-largest city, hard on the shores of Lake Ontario.
“These abuses have been going on for decades,” she said. “But the public just isn’t tolerant of this type of mistreatment anymore.”
On Monday, several prominent civil rights groups filed suit in federal court alleging in a 96-page complaint that Rochester’s police department has a long record of brutality and that its “use-of-force practices continue to be inhumane, racist, and antithetical to the functioning of a civilized society.”
The city of 200,000 people has, through its history, been a powerhouse of American innovation, industrial might and social change. It is also, today, a deeply stratified city, one that suffers from high poverty rates — particularly among the 41 percent of its residents who are Black.
The city’s diversity is not reflected in the police force, 87 percent of which is White — with many officers commuting into inner-city Rochester from more affluent suburbs.
In addition to being relatively homogeneous, the city’s force is also especially large. At roughly 700 officers, it is the second biggest in the country for a city its size, behind Birmingham, Ala.
Those factors can’t be ignored, critics say, when considering the string of recent episodes that have escalated demands for change.
A smaller, more diverse department with greater citizen oversight and less responsibility for areas, such as mental health, where others can do the job better, reform advocates say, might help the city’s police rehabilitate their badly tarnished reputation.
At a recent news conference, interim police chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said that she was open to proposals — and that some shifts had already begun. “We’re not waiting. We’ve already started to put out new policies,” said Herriott-Sullivan, whose office did not respond to an interview request. “We’re moving forward.”
Rochester emerged as a national flash point in the debate over police brutality in September, when details of Prude’s death came to light. He had been killed nearly six months earlier. In between, city officials deliberately hid from the public facts that they feared could lead to protests and unrest, an independent review found in a blistering 84-page report released last month.
Prude’s brother had called police March 23, 2020, because he was behaving erratically and appeared to be in a mental health crisis. After a struggle, officers placed a hood over his head to prevent him from spitting and pinned him to the ground for several minutes. The medical examiner later ruled Prude’s death a homicide and said the cause was “asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
A grand jury declined in February to charge officers in the case following an investigation by the state’s attorney general, though a city-led probe continues.
The disclosure of the true circumstances of Prude’s death spawned days of protests in September, as well as violent clashes between demonstrators and police.
There has been no similar unrest in the months since, but there has been fresh cause for anger.
In January, officers pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl as she sat handcuffed in the back seat of a squad car. Officers had been called in to deal with “family trouble” and were advised that the 9-year-old had “indicated she wanted to kill herself.”
“It’s burning too bad,” the girl cried after being hit with the irritant following a struggle with police.
“It’s supposed to burn. It’s called pepper spray,” an officer replied.
Video of the incident triggered denunciation of police behavior by the governor and the mayor. But weeks later, police again used pepper spray — this time during an altercation with a mother who was with her 3-year-old. Employees of a drugstore had called police to report that the mother had shoplifted, though no shoplifting charges were filed. Police say the woman had apparent mental health issues.
Then, last month, an officer fatally shot Jones outside the Open Door Mission homeless shelter. Officers had repeatedly ordered the 21-year-old to drop the knife he was carrying; Jones had been advancing toward the officers and threatened one that he would “kill you for Jesus.”
Family members said Jones suffered from mental illness and was despondent over the death of his grandmother, who had been buried that day.
The incidents are under internal investigation, though department leaders have said the officers involved appeared to have followed procedures.
Critics say all the incidents involve common themes: Police intensified confrontations when they could have tried to de-escalate. The outcome, they say, might have been far different had they been handled by mental health professionals rather than officers wielding deadly weapons.
“You have one after another after another horrific example of wrongheaded policing, with fatal consequences,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The Rochester Police Department is undoubtedly trigger-happy when it comes to people in crisis.”
Rochester’s police union, the Locust Club, did not respond to a request for comment. But Eugene O’Donnell, a former New York City police officer and now a lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said officers in the city were being unfairly maligned by activists, the media and academics. The consequence, he said, has been rising crime rates: As in many cities, shootings in Rochester have surged over the past year, with 15 homicides so far in 2021.
“The people carrying guns in Rochester are well aware they have impunity. The police have gone to ground there,” he said. “Almost every cop in America has gotten the memo: Be on Fifth Street when the problem is on Third Street.”
Community leaders in Rochester see the problem far differently: Police lack the trust of the people they serve, making it difficult, if not impossible, for them to keep the public safe.
“People always talk about good apples and bad apples,” said Shani Wilson, chair of the city’s Police Accountability Board. “But the problem is, we have a rotten tree.”
Wilson’s civilian-led board is supposed to provide oversight of the police department. But its mission has been undermined, she said, by a police union that’s fought the board’s disciplinary powers in court, a department that won’t hand over basic evidence and a city government that has never provided more than bare-bones funding.
“We keep coming up against barriers from a city that is, quite frankly, not cooperating,” she said.
There are signs that could change, alongside other shifts. The state has mandated that cities across New York put together policing reform proposals. Rochester’s includes some, though by no means all, of the measures that activists have demanded, including a downsizing of the department. Some changes are already underway. The Person in Crisis team, a pilot for using social workers and other mental health professionals to handle mental health calls, is more than doubling in size, from a 14 to 30. Its once-narrow mandate has also been broadened.
The team wasn’t deployed in any of the recent high-profile cases, a decision that Brown, the pastor, said was a grievous mistake.
In the case of her cousin, she said, a less confrontational approach could have saved the life of a young man she described as “a very kind kid,” but one whose life had been interrupted by mental illness. By drawing their weapons and shouting orders, she said, officers had triggered a standoff that was doomed to end badly.
“This isn’t the wild, wild West. It’s a mental health crisis,” she said. “Tyshon did not have to die that night.”