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Leading during difficult times


Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli leads a department with 850 employees. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)

 

Running a business with 850 employees and a budget of $92.8 million. All in a day’s work for an experienced administrator, no?

Maybe not, if your business is public safety at a time when videos circulate of black men killed by police and officers shot down while doing their jobs. Not when national events like these lead hundreds to protest in your own, and many other, cities.

“It’s been difficult. It’s really very difficult for the officers, and it’s very difficult for their families,” Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli says.

But he also understands some of the anger in the black community. As the father of three biracial children, now grown, he knows black lives and blue lives matter at the same time. In fact, they have to matter to each other for the divide in the city and the nation to heal.

“Right now, not just in Rochester, the nation is really at a crossroads. This whole issue about the relationship between the community and the police…This is probably the most critical issue we face, that we have to deal with,” he says.

Rochester resident Banke Awopetu-McCullough does not disagree but says the onus is on the police.

“You’re the professional. You’re the one who’s trained. You’re the one who swore to protect and serve,” she says. If all lives matter, police need to model that.

This is one reason Ciminelli is passionate about the new reorganization for city police that returns the department to a neighborhood policing model with individual officers having charge of a specific section, hopefully building relationships that will improve public safety and public confidence in the department.

In this he has adopted the goals of Mayor Lovely Warren, who made a return to neighborhood policing a promise of her campaign, having heard old-timers talk about a Rochester where people knew the officers on their streets and felt they “had the ear of the captain,” if they had concerns, she says.

“It’s not a publicity stunt; it’s really part of what we should be doing,” Ciminelli says of the project, now a year old.

While the siting of the final two of five neighborhood bases remains to be completed, evaluation of the results from the first year are underway. Ciminelli said the department will be looking at metrics such as response times and overtime costs as well as getting feedback from the community.

“Is it working the way we intended it?” he asked, saying both quantitative and qualitative measurements will be used to measure the impact.

A second major initiative will equip all patrol personnel with body cameras. This began in July with nine cameras to start, 25 to 30 expected to be in use in early August and more than 505 when all the patrol officers, patrol sergeants and patrol lieutenants are trained and equipped with the devices.

It may be a challenging time to run a police department, but Ciminelli, 61, has a lot he wants to accomplish now that he is in the job—ironic given that he never aspired to be chief of police. Asked about his personal interests, he mentions bicycling, watching C-SPAN and reading U.S. Supreme Court cases, adding “there hasn’t been a lot of time for that.”

Return to Rochester
Ciminelli, a Rochester native, started his career on the local police force, first as an officer and then as a homicide investigator. After earning a degree from SUNY Buffalo School of Law in 1982 and working as a prosecutor in the Monroe County District Attorney’s office, he left the area in 1988, ending up as deputy chief counsel at the Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington, D.C.

Two decades after leaving the force, he was lured back by an ad he saw for police commanders in Rochester.

“I missed being part of a local community, even though my job was really fascinating in many ways. I missed that connection with a local community,” he says.

He started out as a division commander on the west side. That was when now-Capt. Kevin Costello met him. Costello was a duty officer at the time and remembers an incident when a fight occurred during a shift change when no car was available.

Despite his rank, Ciminelli rushed out to respond, coming to the aid of a man who was being beaten up.

“He really loves people, and he can’t stop from going to help people,” Costello says.

The two men got along from then on, and as Ciminelli rose up in the ranks, he tapped Costello to assist in several different roles.

“His style as a leader is to make sure people know what’s going on,” Costello says of Ciminelli’s approach, both as a division leader and after being promoted to deputy chief in charge of administration.

When Ciminelli gets angry, he is not the type to blow his stack, Costello said.

“He gets very focused and very serious when he’s upset,” Costello says. He can ask “very pointed questions.”

Other officers interviewed, who commented on the condition they would remain anonymous, say Ciminelli clearly cares both about the safety of his officers and of the community.

“He’s a man of his word,” said one. “He’s got our backs,” said another. “He’s risen up through the ranks. He knows this city,” said a third.

Neighborhood focus
Those involved in the neighborhood policing reorganization say the rest of the department is largely on board. Over the past year, they say, officers have learned to enjoy both the autonomy and responsibility that come with being responsible for a given beat.

“Now they own it; they take pride in it,” said Lt. Mark Simmons, commanding officer for the professional standards section, who worked on the implementation.

His commitment to Warren’s neighborhood policing concept is what finally led Ciminelli to apply for the top job while he was working as interim chief following James Sheppard’s departure.

Ciminelli remembered his own early days as a police officer in Rochester when beats had been structured in a similar fashion.

“I truly believed that reorganizing into a more community-oriented structure was the best thing for the city and the department—and I believe that passionately,” he says.

While the decision, roughly 10 years ago, to merge smaller patrol areas into two divisions, east and west, brought some savings, it came with a different set of costs, he argues.

“I think we lost touch with the community. I think community policing became a specialty instead of a part of the culture,” Ciminelli says.

It is one of his goals to put community policing back at the center of how the department operates.

One setback for the department’s community relations, however, was the arrest of 74 people following a Black Lives Matter protest on July 9. The rally was a response to the police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, but it came just a day after several officers were killed in Dallas by a man who targeted them during a similar rally.

For Rochester, the arrests of the protesters opened up old wounds, Warren says.

“It was like the Band-Aid was just ripped off and salt poured on it,” she says.

How to handle it better? Police could have acknowledged the grief and anger behind the protest, Awopetu-McCullough says. “Police officers can’t even say: ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’”

Instead, Ciminelli was criticized after officers donned protective gear, what critics called “riot gear.” 

“People can agree or disagree about the decision to clear that intersection when it was done, but whatever was done, given the circumstances, it would have been unconscionable for me to expect those officers to be out there without basic protective gear—a helmet and face shield,” he says.

Did the fact that this rally came a day after police had been shot in Dallas influence his decision? No, he says. Reports of water bottles being thrown at officers earlier in the day, along with information that several rocks had been flung on East Avenue meant his officers had to be protected.

“It was getting to a flashpoint where there were confrontations that were escalating,” he says of the decision to clear the intersection and initiate the arrests.

And he says, contrary to some reports, several bar patrons who had gotten into arguments with protesters were among those arrested.

In the days after, Ciminelli spoke publicly on several occasions about the arrests and defended the department. He met with two African American reporters who were caught up in the sweep and with one protester who said he was injured and planned to file a formal complaint. Ciminelli said he is also investigating reports of an officer who used profane language.

“We are taking an honest, hard look at this, as part of our after-action review, to see how we can do better. To the extent we determine there were any individual actions by officers as part of this event that weren’t up to our standards, we will deal with those individual issues,” he says.

It will take time for the community to heal from that event, he acknowledges.

Awopetu-McCullough says the simple act of recognizing why the protesters’ took to the streets, to say “I’m sorry for your loss,” would go a long way.

Despite Ciminelli’s efforts to listen and respond to criticism, “I don’t think we’re there yet,” he says.

Warren agreed but has faith in Ciminelli.

“I’m not going to say we haven’t had our challenges, but I truly believe our chief is leading us where we need to go,” she says.

Diversity on the force
Another of the challenges facing Ciminelli is improving the diversity of the police force. A recent listing of American cities showed the racial demographics of Rochester and its police force were widely divergent. In a city where the minority population is more than 62 percent, minorities in the police force number 25 percent, according to 2013 data reported by the Brookings Institution.

Ciminelli says minority members of the police force now number 27 percent, and the department is aggressively recruiting. Both Ciminelli and other members of the department make a point, for example, of visiting area churches to urge minority youth to consider a career in law enforcement.

“Frankly any chance we have for officers to interact with kids in this city, we do it,” Ciminelli says. “The more diverse the department is—race, ethnicity, gender—it makes us a better police department, and we do want to reflect the community we serve.”

Besides being more representative, he argues officers from different backgrounds can learn from each other, what Warren calls developing “cultural competency.”

Simmons, a black officer, says he believes Ciminelli’s commitment to diversity is genuine. The latest class of recruits numbered 26, of which 12 were minorities.

Over the past couple years, the police academy classes are getting close to 50-50 in terms of white and minority candidates, Ciminelli notes.

“Having said that, we have very many officers now that are not minorities and, in addition to trying to have a greater minority representation, we’re working very hard to make the community comfortable with the department it has now,” he says.

That means all officers need to get to know the people in the neighborhoods they serve, preferably before there’s a crisis or conflict, he says.

Ciminelli pointed to a 2013 Cornell University survey of community attitudes toward police in Rochester that, despite negative perceptions among some, found residents who reported they actually interacted with a Rochester police officer tended to rate the department more favorably than those who had not.

That is part of what gives him hope that neighborhood policing can bring about change, at least locally.

“Getting out of your car and talking to people is not an added burden. It’s the core of what you should be doing—and that’s going to take time,” he says.

Michael Ciminelli

Title: Chief of police, Rochester
Age: 61
Education: B.S. in criminal justice from Rochester Institute of Technology, 1978; J.D. from SUNY Buffalo School of Law, 1982
Residence: Rochester
Family: single, three daughters: Carolyn, 27; Christina, 24; Rebecca, 20
Interests: bicycling, watching C-SPAN, reading case law
Quote: “Right now, not just in Rochester, the nation is really at a crossroads—this whole issue about the relationship between the community and the police. This is probably the most critical issue we face, that we have to deal with.”

8/12/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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