The first Black man to be named mayor of Rochester, Mr. Bill Johnson, sat down with Tocsin Magazine via Zoom to discuss his thoughts on Bob Duffy, Daniel Prude, Mayor Lovely Warren, and more. Read other highlights from the interview below. We also reached out to Johnson about his thoughts on the 9-year-old pepper-sprayed by police. Read his response below.
Unfortunately, being the first Black mayor came without instructions, and some of the changes he wanted to make just didn't happen. When asked was it difficult being the first Black mayor, Johnson responded, "...There's always the question of trying to meet people's expectations, you know, can you actually meet those expectations and in many instances, the answer is no. Primarily because people don't understand the interconnectedness of levels of government, even I didn't. I ran on a platform that I could do certain things I thought I had the power to do those things unilaterally, I soon got a quick lesson to understand there was a state legislature, there's a governor, there's federal law, even I'm a mayor in a county with 19 other, well 29 other elected mayors, town supervisors, village mayors, there's a county executive I had significant challenge working with one county executive for most of my term who just, we didn't see eye to eye and the county was funding a lot of city operations. So, you know, you do what you can and we were able to accomplish I think a great deal in those times, but we could have done a lot more if I had a freer hand, if I didn't have to go to the state to get approval for certain things. If I didn't have to constantly seek additional funding because the city's tax base was shrinking and a lot of creative things we did with surrounding municipalities were just rejected because I was a democrat and they were a republican. So, when the public sees you and they hear you got the title, they think you can walk on water, alright and that's just not true. And I don't care if your name is Johnson, Obama, or Warren, it's just not true. You cannot do everything that you hope and expect to do."
Although Johnson could not make some of the changes he hoped he would, he is happy he had the foresight to hire Cedric Alexander during his administration. That decision helped develop several services for people in crisis. Johnson stated, "...How do we deal with people who are having mental health issues? We did that, we had several instances of bad encounters between the Rochester Police Department and the citizens of Rochester, particularly African American men, we hired Cedric Alexander at the time he was a psychologist at the University of Rochester, but he had had previous police experience and the contract he had at the university he was working with Rochester police officers to help them deal with these kinds of emotional issues. We hired him swore him in as Deputy Chief of Police and gave him full authority to come up with new ways new protocols and we developed. So, this Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team (EDRPT), now they call the Crisis Intervention Team and Family Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT) that started during my administration. It started with Deputy Chief Alexander and we saw real differences in the way we approached people. First, we didn't approach them with guns drawn, okay. We had, now we specially trained police officers to be on this special detail and we made certain that on every watch, the police work is divided up in four shifts, every shift there were members of these teams, of this team that was available to be immediately dispatched cause you don't have these things happening simultaneously every five or ten minutes across the city. These are kind of rare situations, but we made certain that we had people that were trained we invested a lot of money in training people for this..."
To hear more about Mr. Johnson watch our video interview. We also reached out to Johnson to get his thoughts on the 9-year-old pepper-sprayed by police. Please see below for his response.
Tocsin: What were your thoughts when you viewed bodycam footage of the 9-year-old being pepper-sprayed by the police?
Johnson: LIKE MOST EVERYONE ELSE, I WAS STUNNED BEYOND WORDS. FIRST, THIS IS NOT THE WAY POLICE SHOULD DEAL WITH YOUNG CHILDREN, REGARDLESS OF THEIR MENTAL STATE. THERE ARE WAYS THAT PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THESE SITUATIONS CAN BE TRAINED TO DE-ESCALATE A SITUATION LIKE THIS. SECOND, HOW MANY TIMES DOES THE RPD HAVE TO FEND OFF HORRENDOUSLY NEGATIVE HEADLINES ABOUT THEIR CONDUCT THAT REVERBERATE ACROSS THE NATION? I REALLY FAULT THE CHAIN OF COMMAND AND THE UNION FOR NOT EMPHATICALLY REITERATING --EVERY DAY AND AT THE BEGINNING OF EACH SHIFT/PLATOON-- THAT THESE TYPES OF MISBEHAVIORS WILL NOT BE TOLERATED AND WILL BE PUNISHED IMMEDIATELY. THE UNION, THE MAYOR, AND THE RPD COMMAND STRUCTURE, FROM THE CHIEF DOWN THE RANKS TO SERGEANTS, MUST AGREE UNEQUIVOCALLY TO THIS STANDARD OF CONDUCT. AND EVERY OFFICER IN THE FIELD MUST KNOW THAT HIS OR HER JOB DEPENDS ON ADHERENCE TO THOSE STANDARDS. NO EXCEPTIONS.
UNDERSTANDING THE SPONTANEOUS NATURE OF POLICE ENCOUNTERS, (MEANING THE CIRCUMSTANCES CAN CHANGE AND DISINTEGRATE QUICKLY). THERE HAVE TO BE PLANS AND PROTOCOLS WHICH DO NOT FORCE AN OFFICER TO MAKE SNAP DECISIONS THAT CAN LEAD TO UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES. A DISPOSITION TOWARDS DE-ESCALATION RATHER THAN AGGRESSION CAN BE INCULCATED IN TRAINING AND CONTINUOUS EDUCATION PROTOCOLS. I KNOW, BECAUSE WE IMPLEMENTED THIS APPROACH DURING MY TIME IN OFFICE, AS A WAY TO REDUCE THE NUMBER OF DEADLY FORCE INCIDENTS BETWEEN THE RPD AND THE COMMUNITY, ESPECIALLY WITH BLACK MALES.
Tocsin: How do you think that situation should have been handled?
Johnson: JUST AS I DESCRIBED ABOVE, AND INCREASED TRAINING, BETTER SCREENING OF PERSONS WHO ARE HIRED, A COMMITMENT TO DE-ESCALATING USES OF FORCE, RATHER THAN INCREASING THEM. THE POLICE RESPOND TO SOME SITUATIONS WHICH REQUIRE SPONTANEOUS REACTION, BUT MOST OF THEIR CALLS INVOLVE SITUATIONS THAT CAN BE ASSESSED CALMLY, AND OPTIONS CAN BE EXPLORED. IN MY OPINION, THE AVENUE B SITUATION FELL INTO THE LATTER CATEGORY. ONCE THE OFFICER ASSESSED THE SITUATION AND DETERMINED THAT THIS YOUNG GIRL WAS NOT GOING TO CARRY OUT THE THREAT TO HER OWN LIFE OR HER MOTHER'S, A TEAM OF MENTAL HEALTH PERSONNEL SHOULD HAVE BEEN DISPATCHED. TOGETHER --AND LET ME REITERATE TOGETHER-- A PROPER ASSESSMENT COULD HAVE BEEN MADE OF HOW TO BEST RESOLVE THIS SITUATION. BUT HASTY ACTIONS LED TO THE UNACCEPTABLE RESULTS. ONCE AGAIN WE ARE HAVING TO DISCUSS WHETHER THIS SITUATION WAS HANDLED PROPERLY, AND WHETHER RPD IS UP TO THE JOB.
Tocsin: Please add any other information that you would like.
Johnson: PEOPLE WHO ARE CALLING FOR THE DISMANTLING OF THE POLICE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT UNFORTUNATELY THERE ARE TOO MANY BAD ACTORS, INTENT ON DOING BAD THINGS TO PEOPLE, FOR ANYONE TO BELIEVE THAT COMMUNITIES CAN REMAIN SAFE AND STABLE IN THE ABSENCE OF POLICING. PEOPLE TRYING TO POLICE AND PROTECT THEMSELVES CAN EASILY BECOME VIGILANTES LOOKING OUT FOR THEIR OWN INTERESTS, AND NOT FOR THE COMMON GOOD. THE ANSWER IS NOT IN LESS POLICING, BUT IN THE PROPER STAFFING OF THE POLICE. WE NEED TO BETTER SCREEN WHO IS GIVEN THIS AWESOME RESPONSIBILITY, WE NEED TO BETTER TRAIN THEM FOR THE JOB OF PROTECTING ALL RESIDENTS, WE NEED TO CONSTANTLY RE-TRAIN THEM, AND CONSTANTLY RE-EVALUATE THEIR JOB PERFORMANCE, SO THAT THEY KEEP THEIR JOBS. ALL PEOPLE WHO WEAR THE POLICE BADGE ARE NOT PREDATORS AND MARAUDERS. WE JUST NEED TO ELIMINATE THOSE WHO ARE, AND TO PREVENT THEM FROM HAVING THE JOB, IN THE FIRST PLACE. THE LEADERSHIP OF POLICE UNIONS NEED TO ALSO ACCEPT IT AS THEIR CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY TO NOT PROTECT THESE BAD ACTORS, AND TO WORK WITH THE GOVERNMENTS THAT EMPLOY THEM AND THE CITIZENS THAT FUND THEM TO PUT THE BEST PEOPLE ON THE STREETS.