November 25, 2020
From Indymedia Rochester (USA)

During a summer of citizens uprising against the racist Rochester Police Department, as well as against police departments across the world, Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle is demonstrating whose side they are on. On Aug. 22, Rochester’s only daily circulated newspaper published a story by James Johnson on two youth sports organizations who reached out to, rather than turned their backs on, RPD officers. The piece detailed an annual local youth basketball clinic. This year the clinic includes members of the RPD. Also named in the piece is the Rochester Hispanic Youth Baseball League, which received recruiting and suggestions from an RPD Crime Prevention Officer. RPD Officer Moses Robinson wrote to the paper the initiative “demonstrates the close working relationships between the Rochester Police Department and our community partners,” and, “We believe that to increase the law enforcement community policing concept, sports interaction will help with that introduction.”

The article quotes a city firefighter, who received an invitation to the annual basketball clinic; “With the current climate that we have, it’s good that we facilitate positive interaction through sports with our community and our youth,” and that, “It’s been a lot of negative behind police officers, in general. If people are talking about the bad, then we have to highlight the good.”

Nine days later, the D&C published a story by Will Cleveland detailing RPD Chief Laron Singletary’s personnel file. The story described the personnel file as portraying Singletary as “patient and professional,” and that, “Two decades worth of monthly and yearly appraisals portrays Singletary as a compassionate and dedicated police officer.” Singeltary, who in the past served as Deputy Chief of Community Engagement, as well as the Community Affairs Bureau, is depicted as the ideal well-rounded officer.

Like other depictions across the nation, these fluffy stories describe positive interactions between community members and police, while painting officers as wholesome community servants. The problem with these stories, as noted by leading abolitionist lawyer Alec Karakatsanis, is that the reports are anecdotal when compared to the brutal nature of our nation’s carceral state, as well as when compared to vast depictions of officers brutalizing community members long before, leading up to, during, and after protests.

For example, the past summer saw countless documents of use of force by the officers during protests. One only needs to look back on May 30 to see RPD’s brutal response to local community members. RPD violently and indiscriminately shot pepper balls into a crowd and sprayed chemical gas on protestors to disperse “the rowdy crowd.”

As Karakatsanis writes, politicians respond to these brutal acts, and subsequent good press from ‘good cops’ by, “pledging more recruitment and training of ‘good cops,’ better ‘community policing’ practices, and rewritten ‘use of force’ policies. These pledges are then followed by increases in police budgets after the unrest subsides. The police bureaucracy keeps expanding, and police keep killing Black people.” Unsurprisingly, leaders in Rochester are calling for these exact policy changes.

Local Reverend Lewis Stewart called for allocating more resources to training RPD officers through the “reallocation of resources” as a response to the ongoing protests and calls to defund the police. City Council Vice-President Willie Lightfoot pushed back at the notion of defunding the police stating, “I’m talking to citizens every day. They’re not telling me to defund no police. They’re calling me to say you better not defund our police”. Mayor Lovely Warren stated the city should not defund the police but that her goal was to work in partnership to uplift the community while also improving police and community relationships. She also, now infamously, stated, “…I can tell you that by light years Rochester is ahead of the curve and we will continue to do what is necessary to make sure that our community feels safe and that our officers feel safe…”

According to Karakatsanis, “This cycle is the result of the gulf between the image and the reality of the role that police serve in our society. In order to preserve the massive (and profitable) policing bureaucracy in this country, police must conceal what they actually do on a systemic level.The positive stories published by the D&C provide additional shade for the policing bureaucracy feedback loop. The two pieces place neatly into the former half of the feedback loop, which calls for additional ‘community practices’ and ‘good cops.’ The stories emphasize hollow interactions between police officers and youth athletes and uplifts the mythical ideal cop, who sports constructive qualities for the community. The writeups, of course, never mention the brutal subjection of policing, which is akin only to that of a colonizing army.

Take the youth sports story as an example. The story presents officers as aiding several community sports organizations. The story never mentions the cases of David Vann, Benny Warr, Sylvester Pritchett, or any other victim of the same police force that brutalizes black bodies for merely living in that same community.

Additionally, author James Johnson, in paraphrasing the basketball clinic’s director, gloomily states, “Latino and Black men and women are going to remain a part of the community in Rochester. And no matter what reforms take place, there will be a police department in the city.” Such a statement purposely or ignorantly ignores the current uprisings across the nation, in which police departments face mass disinvestments. Such a view ignores the continuing rallies in Rochester that are calling to defund the RPD. If there were ever a time when police departments could cease to exist, now would be that time. The take it or leave it notion of police-community relationships also means trust is not the intention, but rather compliance.

The coverage of Laron Singeltary’s personnel file is another example of this disturbing copaganda. Mentioned in the story are Singeltary’s positive traits as assessed by RPD superiors over the past two decades. Not mentioned in the coverage is the fact that RPD cleared only 27% of crimes during Singeltary’s first year as Chief. Although 2018 and 2019 data are not available, 2017 data indicates only half of gun homicides and 20 percent of gun assaults in the City of Rochester result in arrest.

Also not mentioned is the fact that Singeltary sustained only 19% of allegations against officers, while 61 allegations of excessive force were filed during his first year as Chief. In fact, in 2019, only 1% of excessive force complaints were sustained or determined by a preponderance of the evidence that alleged misconduct occurs. The 61 allegations of excessive force did not include the 83 other claims of procedure, courteously, and other misconduct. The 144 total allegations equate to under 3 allegations per week. All the while, Singeltary states he ought to be the sole power to discipline. [Note the total number of allegations is almost certainly inaccurate, given the abundance of missing data in the criminal justice system].

Additionally, Karakatsanis mentions that while various police chiefs, such as in our case Chief Singeltary, have risen through the ranks throughout the decades, the US cages Black people at far higher rates than South Africa at the height of Apartheid. The personnel story makes sure to document Singeltary’s rise, mentioning Singeltary’s long-term goal of “excelling to the highest rank I can.” By not citing any condemnation, such as the low clearance rate or the lack of substantiation of allegations, as well as the story’s general absence of criticism towards policing, the D&C is providing credulously positive coverage of the department and its Chief.

What is peculiar about the coverage of Singeltary’s personnel file is the framing of how the newspaper received the records. Cleveland mentions the D&C filed more than 60 open request records with the city of Rochester to gain access to police personnel files and that most are still pending. Not mentioned are police unions fighting journalists and the NYCLU from receiving those same records. Nor is it mentioned that 60 open request records are a drop in the bucket compared to the several hundred on-duty officers per year. RPD had 500 police officers in 2019, with 660 total officers in its Operations department. Compare this to the ACLU of NY, which filed a FOIL for every police officer in the RPD, and one can see that the paper is dedicating little in comparative investigative coverage to the personnel files. 

To D&C’s credit, the newspaper published a recent story critical of two officers’ personnel records. However, digging into the account reveals more of the newspaper’s peddling of police nonsense. The D&C published a story by Cleveland showcasing the records of two toxic officers previously lauded by the Mayor and Chief of Police. The toxic records include one of the officers damaging six fleet vehicles in thirty-six months, while the other officer was suspended multiple times.

The incident tying the two officers together was the arrest, and eventual dropped charges, of a person during a “routine patrol.” Cleveland writes, “during the ensuing confrontation, a loaded handgun was knocked to the ground and the officers eventually gained control of it.” Charges were dropped after a judge found the officers had no probable cause for stopping the individual. The officers also did not turn on their body cameras during the confrontation.

Conspicuously not linked nor mentioned in the officer’s personnel records story is the D&C’s initial writeup of the arrest. Published Jul. 24, 2019, the initial writeup contains the disgusting headline, “Convicted felon charged after scuffle leaves two cops injured.” Written by Cleveland and Victoria Freile, the writeup reads like a press release for the cops. Neither the defendant nor witnesses are interviewed for the story. The police are quoted eight times in the initial report, with direct quotes making up 94 words and officer paraphrases making up 84 words. In total, police speak 178 out of 427 words, or about two-fifths of the story. The headline labels the innocent-until-proven-guilty defendant a convicted felon. The newspaper suspiciously mentions their past charges, even though the past felony is seemingly independent of the alleged act.

This initial writeup is uninterrupted coverage for the cops. The writeup never questions the veracity of the alleged weapon, even though the department has a credible history of planting weapons on victims. The writeup never examines the merits of the suspected ‘scuffle,’ even though RPD has a history of violence against community members.

Even the newspapers revealing story on the dropped charges is oddly written. Written by Cleveland, the report paraphrases the defendant’s Attorney as stating, “once [Judge] Moran decided to suppress the gun as evidence, the Monroe County District Attorney’s Office asked for a monthlong adjournment to research whether it could appeal the decision. The DA’s Office decided not to move forward at a Dec. 19 hearing and that’s when Guerrieri and his co-counsel, Melissa Wells-Spicer, asked for the charges to be dismissed. Moran agreed.” The paraphrased quote frames the charges as dropped after the DA’s Office vaguely decided not to move forward a month after the suppression of the gun as evidence and the cops not turning on their body cameras.

The problem of this framing comes to light when one takes the time to read the transcript of the case. Judge Moran ruled the officers had no probable cause for stopping the defendant. The case was initially dismissed because of this lack of probable cause [“My ruling is this. There was no probable cause. Your case is dismissed unless the People want to do something about it in the future”]. The DA could not move forward because there was no evidence to move forward, not because they vaguely ‘decided not to move forward.’ The DA had no case, as the officers admittedly stopped the defendant even though the defendant had not committed a crime. [ “Q. He was talking with him, right? What did my client do? A. He began to run. Q. So, he runs away. He hadn’t committed a crime, right? A. Not at that time. Q. So, in essence, you guys chase after him without him having committed a crime, right?” and, “Q. You stated you don’t know what individual, if anyone, had marijuana, correct? A. Correct. That was part of our investigation. Q. At that point, Mr. Hawkins hadn’t committed a crime, right? A. No, he did not. Ms. Catalano: Objection. The Court: Overruled. Let him answer. What was the answer? The Witness: No, he did not commit a crime at that time.]

Also not mentioned in the revealing story is this golden nugget from the judge: The case wasn’t the first time the judge heard prosecutors press charges without body-worn camera evidence [“I’m starting to see a pattern that I find deplorable. Every time I turn around now, oh, it didn’t work, I don’t know what happened, my camera didn’t work, it didn’t work, it didn’t work”, and You can do whatever you want, but I’m telling you, it’s not going to change my mind. This is absolute wrong. This is like the fourth time in the last month I have heard this line. Come on. Who are you kidding? This is not my first cruise. You can say whatever you want. I’m not changing my mind. I got to be honest with you. I’m mad as hell about this.”]. The disturbing ‘pattern’ is never interrogated by the paper, even though its claim potentially means defendants face charges without evidence.     

All of this goes without bringing up the recent news of the killing of Daniel Prude and the subsequent coverup. The unfortunate irony of the case is that news of Daniel Prude’s death broke two days after the publishing of the Chief’s personnel story. The same newspaper that published the puff piece called for a new Police Chief within five days of their initial report. The paper makes little acknowledgment of its role in disseminating the uncritical coverage of the Chief. The editorial calling for the Chief to resign merely states, “Chief Singletary might have had an exemplary record as an officer. He might not have been on Jefferson Avenue that fatal night. But the mayor says he misled her by saying Prude died of a drug overdose. If it walks like a coverup and quacks like a coverup, it’s a coverup.” The paper is either ignorant in its role or unwilling to admit its role in the police bureaucracy it calls to reform.

The editorial, which calls for ‘total reform’ of the RPD, arrogantly states, Police agencies have some of the most robust public relations efforts in America. They churn out news release after news release about how much cocaine was seized in a drug bust or how some guy was arrested for burglary or tax evasion or whatever. And yet no one…saw fit to put out a news release that Daniel Prude had become brain-dead after three Rochester cops pinned him to the ground? Of course, the editorial board never acknowledges that police agencies churn out news releases because media, such as the D& C, are willing to regurgitate those same releases. The repulsive “Convicted felon charged after scuffle leaves two cops injured” writeup is a prime example of this journalistic arrogance.

In its editorial calling for ‘total reform,’ the board never mentions defunding, abolishment, or any form of ‘less’ policing. The editorial does call for the ubiquitous ‘reordering of police training,’ which again places the editorial neatly in the former half of the policing bureaucracy feedback loop. To paraphrase Karakatsanis, what does it say that when an editorial board sees a police force systemically targeting people in our community, they conclude, “We need more training”?  The editorial is all the writing one needs to read to see which side the Democrat and Chronicle is on.

Related stories from over the past year:

Keyoni Adams tells her story of police violence

Judge on gun case: no body-worn camera footage, no probable cause, case dismissed

It’s not over for Benny Warr

RPD officer Michael Sippel found guilty

On camera: another case of racial profiling by the RPD

David Vann v. the system

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