With the recent announcement by Rochester Mayor Thomas Richards and R.P.D. Chief James Sheppard of a new Rochester Police substation to be located inside the Sibley building downtown, and after receiving calls from parents whose children have been harassed and even assaulted by Rochester Police officers, I thought it'd be a good time to head downtown.
After all, we've heard the news reports of teens fighting, smoking and selling marijuana, and being described by business owners as a "nuisance". So, I decided to venture out and see firsthand, just how the R.P.D. is interacting with the youth, in downtown Rochester.
When I reached the intersection of Franklin and East Main Streets I noticed a heavy concentraton of R.P.D. cruisers. I then observed the following:
First, an R.P.D. officer on a mountain bike rolled up on a group of five African-American teens waiting for their school bus. Within seconds, two more officers joined him. As the first officer was asking the teens for their id, one of the officers, who was wearing sunglasses and leather gloves, began taunting one of the youths, telling him "You're really gonna like it in the back of the van", while the third officer, who I could tell was a Sergeant, as the three chevron-style stripes on his sleeve indicated, began to mock and tease another youth. At no time did I observe any of these young men be disrespectful to any of the officers in any way. On the contrary, the officers' actions and the way they were treating these young men made it clear that they were trying to provoke these youths by treating them in a very aggressive, and confrontational manner.
As all this was happening, I took photos with my camera, which, as was evident by the officers' stares, it was clear to me that they didn't like the fact that I was not only observing, but also documenting their actions. It was about this time when Rochester Police officer David Smith pulled up to the scene in the R.P.D.'s Youth Services (YS-2) van. Instead of officer Smith greeting his fellow officers who at this point in time had walked the youths over to the van, while one of the officers rummaged through one of the young man's bookbag, officer Smith made a bee-line straight to me, then stopped just inches away from my face, and in a very angry, hostile and antagonistic tone, asked me "Do you have a problem with what we are doing here?" Before I could even reply, Officer Smith again asked me "Do you have a problem with what we are doing here?" I told him that I was simply observing. Officer Smith then looked at my press id and asked me "Who are you with?" I told him that I was with Minority Reporter Media Group, and in a very irate manner, officer Smith reiterated his question "Do you have a problem with what we are doing here?" I once again told him that I was observing, and that in doing so, I had a legal right to take photos and record police activities, in this case, their interaction with youth.
I also reminded officer Smith, of the Emily Good incident, the Rochester woman who was arrested by R.P.D. officer Mario Masic for recording a racially profiled traffic stop of an African-American motorist by a white officer in front of her home. Good's charges were later dismissed, as there was no legal grounds for arresting her. I also told officer David Smith that I had contacted my attorney, Mr. Mickey Osterreicher, General Counsel for the National Press Photographers Association (N.P.P.A.). Officer Smith then turned around and walked over to the group of officers who were placing the youths in the van.
Mr. Osterreicher, has been diligently working with and educating police departments throughout the country, on the right of not only the press, but also of citizens to photograph and record law enforcement.
I reached Mr. Osterreicher by telephone in New York City, and asked him what he thought it was going to take for the R.P.D., to not only understand, but also to respect the rights of citizens to photograph and record them. "I think the first thing has to be appropriate guidelines within the department.", Mr. Osterreicher said. "So officers know proper procedures to follow, but more importantly is adequate and continuing training from the R.P.D. in order to reinforce First Amendment rights."
I also asked Mr. Osterreicher what he, especially after having met with R.P.D. officials after the Emily Good incident, thought of my incident with Rochester Police officer David Smith. Mr. Osterreicher said "It would appear that more work needs to be in done in the R.P.D. and if anything I would ask the question was he (officer David Simth) having a problem, because clearly people are allowed to photograph and record in public and had the officer gone about his duties and not approached you there would have been no incident."
And that right there, is the root of the problem. The R.P.D. just doesn't get it. As much as the R.P.D. claims to want better community relations, they sure are going about it the wrong way. Officer Smilth did not have to approach me, and he definitely did not have to address me, and treat me like he did. I was doing nothing wrong. I was simply excercising my First Amendment right, and in doing so I never interfered with any of the officers, at any time.
I recall shortly after the Emily Good incident, Chief Sheppard stating that he tells his officers not to worry about citizens recording and documenting their actions, he simply tells them to just do their job. I guess Rochester Police officer David Smith didn't get that memo from the Chief.
On my walk through downtown, I did see alot of youth. Youth carrying bookbags. Youths waiting for their school buses, while listening to their ipods. No fights. No drugs. No problems. Well, yes there was a problem. A problem with how the Rochester Police department continues to create and escalate competely unnecessary situations, despite the Mayor's and the Chief 's claim to want to earn the respect and trust of the community. As I walked back to my car I couldn't help but to think of a call I had receieved from a mother whose son was placed in a choke hold by R.P.D. officers in front of the Sibley building. After R.P.D. officer David Smith did what he did to me, a member of the press, a law abiding citizen, and an activist, there is no doubt in my mind that R.P.D. officers are mistreating and abusing youth in downtown Rochester.
I also couldn't help but think of Rochester Police officer Kevin Mack, who on a cold January day in 2009, drove onto Dayton St. on Rochester's eastside, and physically abused a 14 year old kid from a broken home named Tyquan Rivera. Mack threw Rivera in a snowbank, then picked him up off the ground by his collar. Mack then walked Rivera back to his home, all the while ridiculing him, as Tyquan's friends looked on. What could have been a positive interaction with this young man, Mack instead chose to make it an antagonistic one. One which ended up in this young man running in his home, grabbing a rifle, and shooting Rochester Police officer Anthony DiPonzio in the back of the head. DiPonzio, a rookie officer at the time, was completely innocent. He had just arrived on the scene, and had nothing to do with Mack's rogue actions and treatment of Rivera, minutes earlier. As the saying goes, DiPonzio was simply at the wrong place, at the wrong time. Of course, our sensationalized local media , and City officials never told us the complete story.
The story of how Kevin Mack's rogue, thug-like actions almost cost an innocent officer his life. The story of how many times, instead de-escalating matters, R.P.D. officers instead create, and then escalate completely unnecessary situations.
The R.P.D. just doesn't get it.