Former Rochester, NY Deputy Police Chief Annmarie Van Son
By Annmarie Van Son
I am a City of Rochester, NY resident who happens to have worked for the Rochester Police Department, as a police officer for twenty-two years.
I worked in patrol and was a supervisor, even deputy chief so I have some knowledge of the system, the rules, and procedures. It is from that perspective that I offer the following.
Numerous people pontificate about how police across the nation conduct themselves, how they are held to account for their actions and how their communities react.
Locally, the most recent incident to come under public scrutiny occurred on May 5, 2018 but didn’t come to the attention of the public at large until August 9, 2018, and was not acknowledged by Rochester, NY Mayor Lovely Warren or Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli until August 28.
Let’s examine this one incident as a microcosm of how these issues play out in Rochester, NY.
On May 5, two RPD Officers, Spenser McAvoy and Michael Sipple confronted Christopher Pate. They asked to see his identification because they thought he matched the description of a suspect.
Initially, Mr. Pate refused their request. Anyone walking the streets is free not to engage with the police. In the United States we are not required to carry identification (driving is an exception to this rule). We are free to go about our business without having to prove who we are.
“Matching the description of a suspect” can be a legitimate reason to stop someone, it could have been in this case also, but with nothing else to raise the level of suspicion, the interaction should have ended with Mr. Pate’s initial refusal to cooperate.
It did not, because these officers violated one of the first things they were told in the police academy: If you are not arresting someone or moving them out of harms way, do not touch them.
It is that simple. Mr. Pate is a grown man. He knows how to walk. He was not fleeing the scene of a crime. He was not about to be injured because he was in the street. Hundreds of people, much to my personal annoyance, walk in the street. There was no probable cause to arrest him. The officers did not cease their engagement with him.
I do not know these officers, but I know many officers and some have a hard time hearing and responding appropriately to a legitimate “No”. Although the oath officers take has them swearing to uphold the Constitution, some act as though they are required to win every argument and be triumphant in every encounter. I do not know the specific motivation in this instance but we can all read about the results.
Within the police department there is a process for what must follow when force is used on a person. The force used or the suspect’s physical resistance to the officer’s arrest efforts needs to be documented in writing, in photographs, and a supervisor (in this case a Sergeant or Lieutenant) is called to the scene. The paperwork produced by the officers is reviewed by their immediate supervisor and forwarded up the chain of command.
Why am I boring you with these details? The two officers are not the only ones who have some responsibility in this incident. This incident represents a system-wide failure of the Rochester Police Department:
These are huge questions that are unanswered and worse than that, are unasked; at least publically.
Officers are required to seek medical attention for anyone who they use force on. They did that. Officers are also required to be courteous. Mocking is not courteous. Putting medical personnel in the awkward position of having to tell Sergeants from Professional Standards Section (RPD’s version of internal affairs) that the officers were making fun of Mr. Pate is embarrassing and only adds insult to injury.
At his appearance in Rochester, NY City Court the lawyer from the Monroe County Public Defender’s Office, the City Court Judge and the Monroe County Assistant District Attorney all would have seen Mr. Pate’s condition and been aware of the charges. Once so aware, their professional experience should have told them something was amiss.
What if anything did they do? What should we, as a community expect them to do?
When all charges were dropped does the judge or the public defender or the DA’s office give any feedback to the police department? Did anyone in that massive bureaucracy report anything back to the Chief’s Office?
I have heard from Public Defenders that they “see this type of thing all the time”. Does anyone other than Rev. Stewart do anything about it? In this community the answer is no.
Dropped charges should be a red flag, a warning that something is wrong. It can be as innocuous as an officer or an investigator improperly completing paperwork or it can be something as serious as this incident.
Instead there is little to no penalty or even scrutiny given to “dropped charges”. The cost of these “mistakes” is one we bear as a community both financially and in our faith in the system.
Returning to the Chief and the Mayor. They have decided that although they and all of Rochester City Council have seen the police body camera video, they will not release it to the public because it is “so disturbing and because of legal reasons”. Apparently, the wisdom of the citizens is in doubt. What we can imagine can be worse than the truth.
Other jurisdictions immediately release police body camera videos because they are practicing transparency. Hiding behind “legal reasons” and “under investigation” are favorites of the RPD and the Mayor’s office.
The Chief of Police has resigned. He has accepted responsibility, though he has not said as much. What about the Mayor? Does she accept any responsibility for this situation?
No she doesn’t.
Even Bob Lonsberry, the most ardent police supporter cannot abide this situation.
Think for a moment how many contacts these two Rochester, NY Police Officers would have had with citizens between May 5th and August 28th.
I dare to speculate if they worked during this time the number would be in the hundreds. What else did either of them do during this time? What were the risks and subsequent liabilities associated with them “doing their job” during that nearly four-month period of time.
What will the Mayor’s office do when this lawsuit is settled?
She will continue to be opaque; Mayor Warren will not release the terms of the settlement because it is for the good of the public that these terms remain a secret.
The suit filed by Ricky Bryant was just settled and that was the excuse offered. Mayor Warren said that letting people know how much money Mr. Bryant was awarded could adversely impact future settlements. Indeed it would.
What about the officers involved in the Ricky Bryant incident? Was there any discipline? No, wait, the RPD and the Mayor’s office can’t tell us because it is a “confidential personnel matter”.
So why did they tell us about these two officers? It either is prohibited or it isn’t, this should not be a matter of convenience.
Rather than being concerned with the impact of future negotiated settlements the Mayor Warren should be concerned about a system that fails the community.
Instead as a community we have insisted upon body worn cameras and a police accountability board (PAB). The body worn cameras have not given the community the transparency it was seeking and neither will a PAB.
Now community members are calling for the arrest of these officers. None of this will matter as long as we have a Mayor who thinks we all need another parent, a court system that looks the other way, line supervisors who ignore wrongdoing or are ignored, and upper level staff who do not engage with their subordinates enough to know what is going on.
It will not matter if other adults in the room (DA’s office, PD’s office, judges and the media) continue to stick their collective heads in the sand.
What about police supervisors, when are they held accountable?
Never is the answer under the current system and as long as we are kept in the dark, we will continue to ask the wrong questions and not get answers to those that we do ask.
This incident is shrouded in secrecy.
Thank you Rev. Stewart for shining a light on this issue.
Keep up the good work.
Annmarie Van Son is retired from the Rochester, NY Police Department where she worked for twenty-two years, ascending to the rank of Deputy Police Chief.
The Davy V. Blog would like to thank Mrs. Van Son for being a guest essayist and for speaking out on police accountability and a broken system.