Police and Communities of Color: How that Gulf Can be Bridged

Police and Communities of Color: How that gulf can be bridged

William A. Johnson Jr.

CEO, Strategic Community Intervention LLC

Former Mayor, Rochester NY

October 2014

In recent years, there has been abundant evidence of a growing distrust between citizens and elected officials. From the national level to local boroughs, there has been a detachment from the normal processes of citizenship that led to dangerous aloofness on even the most mundane civic affairs. Voting participation is lackluster nationally, abysmal in local elections. Grassroots political organizing is left to the hyper-partisans, and citizen volunteerism is becoming rare on so many fronts.

In fact, many citizens stir from their apathy only on issues which provoke their anger: e.g., the “Tea Party” rebellion, or conflicts between police departments and communities of color. This is especially true in cases where a police encounter leads to a civilian death. As we have seen in communities like Ferguson, Missouri, events quickly escalate into a conflagration.

My first professional encounter with police deadly force occurred many years ago when I was a young Urban League executive. A 19 year old Black housewife, in the midst of a life-and-death struggle, was shot dead by a white policeman who mistook the knife she used to fend off her husband as a threat to his own safety.  The city of Rochester NY, which had experienced a major riot a decade earlier, was thrown into an immediate uproar around the question of whether this horrific tragedy could have been avoided if that officer had exercised other options at his disposal.

After a grand jury absolved him of any criminal liability, the Mayor (whom I would succeed nearly 20 years later) appointed a task force to review a whole range of police procedural issues, including training, hiring and use-of-force protocols. About two dozen public safety and citizen representatives were appointed, and we were given authority to review everything and to propose a full range of recommendations. This was viewed as an appropriate method of citizen engagement in that era. However, there was little or no opportunity for the affected communities to participate, except through their proxies: social service administrators and ministers.

After a year of deliberations, the Task Force identified nearly 100 areas for change, and almost all of them were recommended unanimously. That was remarkable, considering that the major police unions, as well as command staff, were prominent committee members. The Mayor and City Council codified all of our recommendations. All of this transpired in the mid-1970’s, with the historical backdrop of urban riots and the rise of a conservative “law and order” mentality across the nation.

By the time I came to office in 1994, 14 other Black men and women had died after deadly encounters with the police. Good relations between the police and the African-American community were beyond comprehension, and communications were practically non-existent. Several officers had been charged with federal civil rights abuses, and the chief had been imprisoned in an unrelated scandal.

Reversing this dire situation was a top campaign pledge. A new chief from out-of-state, with a distinguished record of engaging the community in police reforms, was hired. Community-oriented policing protocols were immediately implemented, over the strenuous objections of one union president who said that policing was not “social work”. Thinking back to that tragic shooting 20 years before, it was absolutely imperative to begin real dialogue, and to work on real solutions to the myriad problems of violence and quality of life which plagued much of our community.

African-American residents were the most skeptical about engaging in these activities, but once they realized their oft-ignored concerns were finally being taken seriously, there was a willingness to participate. At first, it was primarily older residents who joined these efforts, but the focus on youth concerns soon produced significant breakthroughs with that cohort.

These changes transcended rhetoric and “feel-good” activities. We undertook major structural changes, such as decentralizing police services into neighborhoods which had been traditionally neglected. Six NET offices (Neighborhood Empowerment Teams) were strategically situated around the city, each co-staffed by a civilian administrator with code enforcement personnel, and a police lieutenant with assigned patrol officers who could easily be dispatched to neighborhood hotspots.

A “Youth Summit” was held six months into my first term, with high school student leaders. Adults were present to help facilitate, but the agenda and the deliberations were directed by the students. A major foundation earmarked thousands of dollars that the youth could use to fund their priority suggestions. Recreation centers were refocused to provide a broader array of services. Each of the 17 centers had a youth council that worked with the adult staff to plan and implement services.

Our first new comprehensive city plan in 40 years actively engaged thousands of citizens, who focused less on land use procedures, and identified eleven specific action agendas that would lead to neighborhood and city-wide revitalization. The city was divided into 10 sectors, for planning and program implementation purposes, each with an oversight committee comprised of residents, business and civic representatives who self-selected. Budget planning was aligned with spending plans. City Hall and residents collaborated, rather than fought. All of these activities were formalized in a structure called NBN (Neighbors Building Neighborhoods).

In 12 years, we didn’t achieve everything we set out to do, but I am absolutely convinced that our efforts to restore trust between the Police department and ALL of the citizens it was sworn to serve was the foundation of every other effort to fully engage our citizens in determining the city’s future. Restoring that trust required a willingness to reach out, listen earnestly, and act on what we were hearing. Restoring trust required admissions that both sides of the divide must work to overcome doubts and suspicions.

Most importantly, restoring trust meant that the Mayor, City Council and the bureaucracy had to be willing to share power with its citizens on the issues which most impacted their neighborhoods, and citizens had to be willing to engage in the hard work of collaboration, with government leaders and their neighbors, if meaningful change had any possibility of success.

Even in communities which have no recent history of such collaboration, the paradigm can be dramatically changed, if the key players are willing to work hard to establish trust and collegiality. Plus, there must be  a willingness to acknowledge the failure of past efforts. Identifying those factors that have prevented past collaborations insures that they will not be repeated.

For those communities, six basic principles must be embraced:

  1. Elected leaders must sincerely solicit the involvement of citizens in community improvement initiatives. This initial outreach will communicate the right signal that this is a serious effort.
  2. If the first approaches are not successful, the leaders must continue their outreach until a breakthrough is achieved. No initiative should proceed until all of the key parties have signed on.
  3. Citizens from all sectors of the community must be engaged. Officials cannot choose who they want to collaborate with.
  4. As painful as it might be, time must be devoted to airing old grievances –on both sides. Unless this is done, these old grievances will continue to crop up and make current deliberations less successful. Once those concerns are aired, they can be put to rest. The parties should agree that from that point, they will look forward and not to the past.
  5. Start the dialogue with a “blank sheet”. Neither party should come into the process with a pre-conceived agenda. The success of these efforts will depend on each party feeling that they have made important contributions to the final outcome.
  6. Successful community collaborations will occur when the power relationship between the parties is view as equitable. Elected officials should not fear sharing power with their citizens, their neighbors.





Favro on Special Assignment in Kosovo

Senior Associate Tony Favro began a four weeks assignment on October 12, 2014, as an Advisor in Planning and Zoning for federal and local government officials in Kosovo. He will assist in the review of land use regulations, as well as drafting municipal zoning codes and maps, and preparing administrative guidelines and training modules for carrying out the zoning process.

In February, he was selected for the Fulbright Specialist Roster in the areas of urban planning and community development by the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs, and the Council for International Exchange of Scholars. His selection is for a five year term of 2014-2019.

Favro holds a Ph.D. from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. Among his prior professional duties, he has been Assistant to the Mayor of Rochester NY, and the Director of Planning and Zoning for Irondequoit, NY.

Bill Johnson Guest During ABA Mediation Week

SCI CEO Bill Johnson was the guest of SCI Associate Sarah Read, an adjunct law professor at the University of Missouri School of Law, for a video conference during the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Mediation Week. ABA’s theme for this event was, “Exploring the Spectrum of Mediation from Rookie to Veteran.” Mayor Johnson was asked to participate as a “veteran” with considerable insight on the process of mediation in helping communities through conflict.

This session was proposed by Professor Read, in response to the continued unrest in Ferguson, MO following the tragic killing of Michael Brown. Johnson spoke extensively about similar situations he had dealt with in his 12 years as Mayor and earlier as Urban League Director.

Watch the video:


Four New Associates Join SCI

SCI Chief Executive Officer Bill Johnson is pleased to announce that four outstanding public sector professionals have joined the firm in April 2014, bringing to 18 the number of Associates who represent diverse levels of expertise. With these additions, Associates are now located in Rochester and two other New York cities, as well as five states and the District of Columbia.

  • Edward J. Dohertymost recently retired as Vice President at the Rochester Area Community Foundation. He had a nearly 30 year career at the City of Rochester where he served as Commissioner of Environmental Services and Budget Director. He is also an adjunct professor of public administration at SUNY-Brockport. At the Foundation, he was the principal author of recently released special report, Poverty and the Concentration of Poverty in the Nine-County Greater Rochester Area.
  • Robert W. Elliott has a long and distinguished career in municipal and state government. He was the Mayor of Croton-on Hudson, NY from 1991 until 2005 and a former President of the NYS Conference of Mayors. From 2007-09, he was the Deputy Secretary of State for New York, where he oversaw a number of functions including the Division of Local Government Services. He currently serves as Senior Advisor to a number of firms working in the local government arena.
  • Annette L. Gantt is the President and Founder of Gantt Consulting LLC in the DC metropolitan area. For more than 10 years she was the Executive Director of the Hillside Scholarship Connection with sites located in Upstate New York and Prince Georges County, MD. Most recently she has been the President and CEO of the Earth Conservation Corps in Washington DC, and the Vice President for Field Operations for Communities in Schools National in Arlington VA. She is an acknowledged expert in school-to work programs.
  • Stewart C. Putnam enjoyed a 38 year career as a hospital administrator until his retirement in March. He was the principal architect of the merger of St. Mary’s Hospital (where he was the CEO) with Park Ridge Hospital to create the Unity Health System in 1997, where he became the Executive Vice President. One of his final assignments at Unity was to help design the merger with the Rochester General Hospital System. He has also consulted on other health system mergers. He is currently the national board Chair-elect of the Alzheimer’s Association, based in Chicago. He has relocated to Pittsburgh, PA.

SCI Completes Transition Reports for Incoming Mayor

SCI concluded a seven weeks engagement at the end of December 2013, for the administration of incoming Mayor Lovely A. Warren. Two separate reports were completed:

  • “ Summary and Analysis: City of Rochester Departmental Reports” was an analysis of major projects uncompleted by outgoing administration that would need to be addressed during the first six months;
  •  Mayoral Transition Process: Public Engagement Report” Identified levels of public support, as well areas of citizen concern, for the major priorities which Mayor Warren identified during the election campaign.

SCI Associates Vincent CarfagnaTony Favro and Bruce Fisher,  conducted the departmental analyses. This involved reviewing voluminous written documents from each operating department, as well as interviews with the outgoing Mayor and his department heads. CEO Bill Johnson and his team provided on-going briefings to Mayor Warren and her team, as often as necessary, to insure that their important decisions could be shaped as soon as she took office.

Favro also designed a unique process of gathering important public input for the Mayor-elect.  The six major areas which constituted the basis of her campaign were discussed in concurrent Focus Group sessions on a Saturday morning. Citizens representing diverse community interests were carefully selected for participation. At  the conclusion of the Focus Groups, their input was able to be accessed via the Internet by any citizen in the community during a five day comment period. All of these comments were reported to the new administration, to also factor into their decision-making. SCI Associates Carmen ColemanDavid Dey, Edward Doherty and Dr. John Klofas were among the six focus group leaders.

As a former Mayor, and participant in transition activities for several newly elected officials, Johnson’s experiences were an integral part of the design and implementation of this engagement, as were those of the team he selected. Each member has significant municipal government experiences.

The reports were well received. Mayor Warren called them “thorough, professional and uniformly excellent”, and of tremendously helpful to “the smooth transition” from the Richards administration to hers.

SCI Engaged by “No More Casino Coalition”

Bill Johnson, CEO of SCI, has joined forces with the No More Casino Coalition to prevent the Seneca Nation of Indians from expanding into Monroe County. This area has been its primary target since Proposition One was approved in the November 2013 state-wide referendum, which permitted the formation of non- Indian casinos in the state for the first time. The Senecas have exclusive gambling rights in all of Western New York and a large swath of the Finger Lakes region, including Monroe County. They currently operate three casinos in their territory. Non-Indian casinos are currently being proposed in other Upstate regions, including Seneca County which is approximately 40 miles east of Monroe.

Johnson’s experience in preventing a casino from being located within the City of Rochester during his tenure as Mayor, as well asSCI’s expertise in developing and implementing citizen engagement initiatives were key factors in the decision to become actively involved in the Coalition which is comprised of local citizens, faith-based, community and business groups, and government officials.