The Rochester Police command staff, including outgoing Chief La'Ron Singletary, met with City Council members and Mayor Lovely Warren via Zoom on Thursday about the ongoing unrest in the city.
There have been daily protests about the alleged coverup of the death of Daniel Prude after police restrained him in March. Some of those demonstrations ended with police firing pepper balls and using gas to disperse crowds last weekend. The last few protests ended quietly and officers didn’t use force.
When Councilmember Mitch Gruber asked what it would take for police to use those weapons again, Police Chief La’Ron Singletary said it depends on the actions of the crowd.
“On the couple of nights you’re talking about,” said Singletary, “there were incendiary devices thrown at officers from the crowd. The police officers have to protect themselves. I can’t have police officers standing on a line and face any type of injury because of objects that are being thrown at them.
“We have a couple of pictures of individuals that we have found and arrested,” Singletary continued, adding that they confiscated Molotov cocktails during those arrests. Singletary offered to show Council video of the incidents, but the hour long meeting time expired.
Deputy Chief Joseph Morabito said at least nine officers have been injured. Numerous protesters have reported injuries as well.
Councilmember Mary Lupien, who attended several of the protests over the weekend, questioned the conduct of the police department, saying their response was “overly severe” and that they “were aiming at Council members.”
She also claimed the pepper balls were brought on by a single water bottle and sparklers. Morabito disagreed.
“Before anything was thrown at us, there were a number of orders went out for people to disperse for quite a lot of time,” said Morabito. “It gave people a chance to leave that didn’t have the intent to cause problems. And a sparkler is something that young children carry around to celebrate. These are incendiary devices. We had a captain that was out there on the line that had his face burned by this incendiary device that you’re calling a sparkler. It's not a sparkler, it's dangerous.”
Morabito said that umbrellas and shields brought by protesters caused pepper balls to ricochet and hit others. He also said there were no incidents in three months of protests at Martin Luther King Park or on Jefferson Avenue near Daniel Prude’s memorial.
“The people there have been protesting peacefully.” Morabito continued. “Every time they march, is there an incident? No. Because they’re peaceful.”
Councilmember Michael Patterson, who also attended the protests, described the police as a paramilitary organization and said their “formations can be intimidating” and provoke a response. He also thought the response was overwhelming and questioned their use of the term "unlawful assembly."
“My concern is what I observed is a bunch of kids who were singing and dancing,” said Patterson. “There were some fools throwing some things, and there’s no way to get around that. But part of the concern and the issues is that your response, I wouldn’t say it's indiscriminate , but it was unfocused. There might be someone who is acting inappropriately, but unless someone in the crowd checks that person, your response is to the entire crowd.”
Singletary said that protests become unlawful “when rocks and bottles are thrown at officers.” He said the commander on duty makes that call and protesters are warned to leave.
When the command staff was asked why officers were covering their names and sometimes their badge numbers during the protests, Morabito said there have been increasing tensions in recent months, and it's done for safety reasons.
“Our officers have had direct threats and bounties on some of their heads,” said Morabito. “We had another officer standing there where the person in front of them saw their name and found their address while standing there. And showed it to the officer and said, 'We’re going to be coming to your house, we know where you live.' ”
Morabito also spoke out about recent public comments from Council members that have been critical of police. He said the city should learn from the command staff, including himself and Singletary, deciding to leave their posts, adding the entire police department is demoralized and needs an apology.
Singletary announced Tuesday that he will retire on Sept. 29.
Mayor Lovely Warren said she wants to wait until June to pick a new permanent chief. To have an orderly transition of power, Warren said she’d like to find someone internally.
“I would hate to do a national search,” she said, “and to pay for a lot of money for someone that would come in. I don’t think we would get a person that would come at this point and time.”