Police-Community Relations from July '64 to Today

Jul 24, 2014

On July 24, 1964, riots erupted at a block party near Nassau Street and Joseph Avenue.
Credit Jim Day

“If you weren’t white, you were in trouble!” Herman Rumlin tells a tour group visiting sites on Joseph Avenue relevant to the July 1964 Riots. Rumlin is a one of a group of Monroe Community College students leading the tours, but unlike his classmates, he grew up in this neighborhood and was witness to the events as a 14 year-old.

“I’ve seen African-Americans and Latinos get beat down by RPD for no reason at all!” Rumlin proclaims.

Rumlin isn’t the only one who remembers Rochester Police targeting groups for merely walking down the road. Darryl Porter tells stories that echo Rumlin’s, “As a little kid out there playing or sitting on the porch, and then all of a sudden, you see them pull up, jump out and start beating on people.”

On July 24, 1964, Porter, also 14 years-old at the time, was at the block party where what began as a clash with police has come to be known as the Rochester race riots. In hindsight, he believes had police taken a more moderate approach, violence could have been avoided.

“Our friend, Randy, who was intoxicated that night and loud and boisterous. Of course, he needed to be removed from the area. Which was no problem, I agreed, my club members agreed, and so did the police, but how you do it is where we disagreed,” Porter recalled.

The crowd wanted to take the man home, but the police insisted on arresting him.

Verdis Robinson, MCC Professor of History, leads a discussion in front of the Congregation B'nai Israel building, once a Jewish Orthodox congregation, during a walking tour of Joseph Avenue.
Credit Jim Day

  “They wanted to take him, put him in the wagon, and take him downtown. And like I told you, our image of when you go in that wagon we know what’s going to happen to you. When you get downtown we know what’s going to happen to you. And we’re not going to allow it, because there is no reason for it,” continued Porter.

Porter remembers that the officers didn’t take kindly to being contradicted.

“Lack of communication was in there. And because they were determined to take him and we were determined to take him home, as opposed to them taking him to jail, then all hell broke out!” Porter recounted.

Rochester Police Deputy Chief of Operations Fred Bell was one of the first African-Americans on the force when he was hired in 1967. “When I came on the job—I came on 3 years after the riots—at that time you could count the number of black officers on your hands and have fingers left over,” Bell said. He does acknowledge that at the time, police were domineering.

“We didn’t know about community relations. Community relations were ‘You’ll do what we tell you when we tell you, and we’ll get along.’ And that was the way it was,” Bell says the department has come a long way since then, but not everyone agrees.

They wanted to take him, put him in the wagon, and take him downtown. And like I told you, our image of when you go in that wagon we know what's going to happen to you. When you get downtown we know what's going to happen to you. And we're not going to allow it!

  A survey released this year of the community’s perceptions of RPD showed while overall most city residents—70 percent—have a favorable impression of the department. But when the results are narrowed, non-white Rochesterians are most likely to report an unfavorable impression of police. Furthermore, of the people of color surveyed, 59.3 percent report a distrust of police.

In 2013, there were a number of highly publicized incidents where RPD officers were accused of brutalizing black residents. One example was in May of last year. Mary Adams, a Rochester City School District board member, and her husband, Ricardo Adams, both witnessed an altercation between Rochester police officers and Benny Warr, a paraplegic. The Adams’ say they saw police wrestle Warr out of his wheelchair and onto the pavement. Mary explains she saw the aggression continue. “I witnessed a very, very violent kick to his head. Where I was literally three or four feet away, I mean there was no question. This was so clear cut,” said Adams. After seeing what they call clear police brutality, the Adams’ - and others like them in Rochester -  they’re skeptical of how race relations has improved since 1964.

According to RIT Criminal Justice Professor John Klofas, it’s important to remember that, even with intense media attention, highly publicized allegations of abuse are not characteristic of RPD as a whole. “Although, they may be indicative that you’ve got to do something. I think following those incidents there were major changes in the police department that were prompted by those incidents,” he said. Some of those changes include a review of the police oversight process, a new police chief, and a reorganization to move to smaller sections that get more officers on specific community beats.

Joe Sturnick, associate professor of criminal justice at Monroe Community College, calls the new “community policing” model a way to get citizens and officers more acquainted with one another. “The perception drives reality. Relationships between police and community are driven by perceptions. The more you know people in a community--go back to my comment, there are always more good people than troubled people. The more you know people the more you realize, ‘Hey, wait a minute! They’re a lot like me,’” said Sturnick.

Both criminal justice professors warn that community-police relationships cannot be scrutinized in a vacuum. Similar to 1964, issues of poverty, housing, jobs, and education remain problematic and they have a dynamic effect on communities, including crime.

Klofas sees a key improvement over the past 50 years is an increase in community organizations that serve as pressure relief valves in serious situations. He said, “Intermediary organizations and people, that didn’t exist in the past. I don’t think that means the relationships between anybody are necessarily better.  I think they are maybe less volatile than they were.”

One such intermediary that didn’t exist in 1964 is the Center for Dispute Settlement, which runs the Civilian Review Board (CRB) that is charged with auditing complaints against RPD. Frank Liberti, director of police-community relations programs for the center, says there is no question in his mind that RPD is making strides to improve their internal culture and relations within the city.

“My general impression is the police certainly practice a whole lot differently than they did 50 years ago. And thank God that they do. If there and when there are complaints about an officer and they’re investigated, we make sure that those investigations are fair, thorough, and timely,” said Liberti. However, the CRB itself has been criticized for being as opaque as the police department, but Liberti says reviews must remain confidential to protect the process.

For the men who were teenage spectators to the riots, Herman Rumlin and Darryl Porter, they feel the relationship between police and the community is better. For Porter, an important difference is that there is a process to complain when necessary. “There’s always going to be somebody that’s going to do something that they don’t have any business doing, but the overall is the fact you have recourse, that you can do something about it. Whereas, we couldn’t do anything about it. If we went downtown to try to complain about a police officer when we got downtown we got worse treatment!” remembers Porter.

Rumlin reports already seeing officers doing what the reorganization is meant to do. “I see now they get into the neighborhood more. They walk and talk to the people. Like we’re doing now, I’ve seen them walk down the street. I’ve seen them go into different stores, different areas. I’ve seen them talk to older people and younger people. It’s changed a lot!” Rumlin explains.