Opening police disciplinary records to public scrutiny didn’t work as intended in Rochester, New York.
It turns out the boogey man wasn’t under the bed.
And the thug cop isn’t in the ranks.
And the vast majority of officers in the Rochester Police Department go their entire careers without a single disciplinary proceeding against them. No reprimands, no letters in the file, no suspensions.
Just integrity and professionalism.
Which isn’t the way it was supposed to go. With snippets of video and angry press conferences, anti-cop activists ranted and raved about rogue cops who offended and offended and offended and were turned loose to prey upon innocent citizens on the street.
The narrative was that the police union and bad officers hid behind a civil service protection that kept police disciplinary records out of the public eye. Activists and reporters demanded access – demanded that officers be stripped of this traditional protection – so that the truth could be known.
And they got their wish.
The legislature acted, the protection went away, and the records came out.
First in dribs and drabs, with witch hunts and fishing expeditions emanating from newsrooms and non-profits. Here a freedom-of-information request, there a freedom-of-information request.
Then with wholesale release. And in Rochester, like some other departments, that meant it all got posted online. Search it, study it, read all about it.
Which gets us to what they didn’t find.
It turns out, in Rochester, the officer with the longest disciplinary record is an officer who is very close to the mayor and who she recently wanted to put in as deputy chief – a guy who was the target of six disciplinary actions and who somehow, not that long ago, lost track of a bag of marijuana he took off a kid.
But he’s the exception.
Of the RPD’s between 600 and 700 sworn officers, just 117 of them have been disciplined. And of those, the overwhelming majority – 83 – have only one disciplinary measure against them. That leaves just 34 officers, out of as many as 700, who have more than one reprimand.
That means something like 83 percent of Rochester’s police officers have never gotten a reprimand or suspension, with a similar majority going their entire careers without facing workplace discipline. Similarly, less than five percent of Rochester officers have been disciplined more than once, and of those who are disciplined once, almost 60 percent of them never offend again.
That’s a pretty unsatisfying witch hunt. Especially when you consider that many of the disciplinary matters have to do with driving and dinging up patrol cars.
It’s hard to find the “rogue” in numbers like that.
It’s also hard, if you’re honest, to escape the larger conclusion.
Namely, that the Rochester Police Department has been, over the careers of the officers now in uniform, an environment of integrity and professionalism. You don’t have that many clean noses unless keeping your nose clean is an institutional ethic, modeled at the top and demanded at every level.
These disciplinary records give a behavioral cross section of the department and its leadership. They tell you about not just the behavior of individuals, but the competence and integrity of department leadership stretching back over years. The friend of the mayor, with the six disciplinary matters, racked up most of those in the 1990s, in an earlier day under a different culture.
But most officers in uniform today have come up in a department with a mature, stable, disciplined and honor-bound leadership culture. That culture set clear standards for them, and held them to a high level of conduct – and, as the records show, the overwhelming majority of officers embraced that.
Those are all signs that the Rochester Police Department was doing it right.
But the mayor blew up the Rochester Police Department last fall.
Trying to avoid responsibility for covering up the death of a black man after contact with police, she reportedly pressured the police chief to lie to conceal her culpability. That led the chief and his command group to retire or seek reassignment.
And that destroyed the careers of various officers groomed and trained over years to lead with a spirit of service and honor. It took one of the best-led police departments in the country and blew its leadership structure to smithereens.
And now it drifts under interims, waiting on the political prospects and whims of the mayor.
The verdict is still out on her. But it’s come back on her department.
We have seen the records of the officers of the Rochester Police Department, and they show this to be a department of ladies and gentlemen who are defined by their integrity and professionalism.