Bob Lonsberry

Bob Lonsberry

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LONSBERRY: PAB EXTRAVAGANCE LED TO SPENDING MORATORIUM


        On Election Day in 2019, three-quarters of Rochester voters made themselves clear – they wanted a civilian board to oversee and investigate the police department.

 

               The proposition was probably a political stunt – a desire to turn out city voters to bolster the county executive candidacy of Adam Bello, and a move by Mayor Lovely Warren to strengthen community support as she entered a season of political and legal embarrassments.

 

                The proposition was probably also illegal – at least in terms of the powers claimed by the proposal, which courts have since found to be in violation of both the city charter and the state law.

 

               But the people voted, and it wasn’t close, and the Police Accountability Board was born.

 

               That was its last victory.

 

               Since then, the people charged to oversee and be the PAB seem to have done little more than feather their own nests.

 

               They envisioned a staff that would have – on weekdays during office hours – more people working at the PAB than were actively patrolling the streets of this city of more than 200,000 people. Instead of setting up offices in existing city property, or at any one of the neighborhood recreation and services centers, the board was ensconced in prime space leased at above market rate in the heart of downtown.

 

               Further, a series of “deputy chiefs” were hired at wages that ranged between two and three times the median Rochester household income.

 

               All while doing nothing.

 

               And, as recent revelations show, doing worse than nothing.

 

               Almost two and a half years into its official existence, the Police Accountability Board hasn’t investigated a single incident, reviewed a single policy, done anything to improve public safety in Rochester, or even commented on what is statistically the most lethally violent period in the city’s history.

 

               And now it is worse.

 

               Amidst a flurry of claims in every direction of racial and sexual discrimination and harassment, the executive director has been suspended – after a no-confidence vote from the board – and City Council has moved in to place a moratorium on all PAB hiring and purchasing.

 

               And here’s the buried lede: The spending moratorium came about as the result of lavish and ridiculous spending requests by the board.

 

               Namely, almost a quarter of a million dollars to get new executive furniture for their already-furnished offices, and almost a hundred thousand dollars in luxury SUVs for top brass at the PAB.

 

               Here are the specifics: The PAB told city officials it needed $230,000 for office furniture and $95,000 for two Chevy Suburbans and one Ford SUV.

 

               By way of context, the Rochester police chief drives a Tahoe – smaller and less expensive than the Suburban – and deputy chiefs drive either Impala sedans or Explorers, which are small SUVs. Rochester police brass drive SUVs because the vehicles contain relatively large safes to hold emergency equipment essential to their jobs. In the fire department – where leaders, like in the police department, actively respond to emergency calls – the chief drives a Tahoe and deputy chiefs drive Ford Expeditions. That means the PAB brass would be driving bigger and more expensive vehicles than the leaders of both the fire and police departments. That means the most expensive personal vehicles in the city fleet would be earmarked for the Police Accountability Board.

 

               That means there is a problem at the Police Accountability Board.

 

               And that’s why City Council took away its power to hire people and buy things.

 

               The assertion of the PAB, according to a City Hall official knowledgeable of purchasing matters, was that it couldn’t begin work hearing complaints about the police department until it was “all built out,” to include a “full complement of people” and “we can’t start until we get these vehicles.”

 

               It’s worth noting that Rochester is one of the poorest cities in America, with the nation’s second-highest rate of childhood poverty and a top-five ranking for concentrated poverty among people of color.

 

               It’s also worth noting that, two and a half years in, the PAB has done absolutely nothing.

 

               And now it sits, the subject of an outside investigation, having lost the confidence of City Council and facing the prospects of a reconstruction that could gut it.

 

               Which is great, if you’re a cop-supporter like me.

 

               But which is a great betrayal, if you are among the 75% of city voters who felt that a police review board was necessary.

 

               The people went to the polls, they made their wishes known, the PAB was given a blank check. But instead of serving the people who created it, the PAB served itself, falling into a morass of bickering and self-serving incompetence.

 

               The Locust Club didn’t do that. The police department didn’t do that. I didn’t do that.

 

               The Police Accountability Board did that.

 

               Two mayors and two City Councils have supported the PAB and encouraged its efforts. And now it sits dead in the water, doing nothing and with its future uncertain, because of internal problems.

 

               And tonight the City Council will consider the mayor’s request for a $5 million budget for the PAB.

 

               That request should be tabled or modified.

 

               The board’s future is uncertain; its funding should also be uncertain. If the organization is on hold pending an investigation and reorganization, its money should also be on hold.

 

               It makes no sense to put $5 million into an organization that hasn’t yet shown it can do anything – especially in a city with so many needs.

 

               The voters and residents of Rochester want change for police – not a gravy train for activists. The voice of the people should be obeyed, not ripped off.

 

               And the Police Accountability Board should work harder to avoid living up to the worst expectations of its critics.


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