David Smith, interim chief of the Rochester Police Department, had his day in front of City Council Monday, as Councilmembers grilled the potential new chief on several key issues facing the Rochester Police Department.
Smith has served as interim chief since October and in June he was tapped by Mayor Malik Evans to serve as the department’s permanent chief. Council is expected to vote on his appointment Tuesday, but during a confirmation hearing Monday, Councilmembers questioned Smith on everything from rising police overtime costs to protest response and what the department does and doesn’t respond to.
Councilmember Mitch Gruber posed questions about overtime in response to a CITY article published earlier Monday that detailed how some officers were paid as much as a quarter-million dollars in fiscal year 2022 as a result of overtime.
“This is not a new problem, this is a longstanding problem, and every chief who has sat in that seat before, and every time we’ve had a confirmation hearing, and every time we’ve had a budget hearing, we’ve asked what is going to be done about overtime costs,” Gruber said.
Smith responded that the department has capped officers’ workdays at 16 hours. He added that, when the issue came to his attention several months ago, there were some officers logging 30-hour non-stop shifts.
“A lot of it is due to our current staffing shortage,” Smith said. “For example, looking at my most recent daily patrol shortage report, which came out Sunday, yesterday, we were short a total of 37 officers for patrol, a shortage of 37 8-hour slots.”
Smith said he wants to hire more officers.
The hearing also touched on what exactly the department’s priorities are at the current moment in time. For example, when asked by several Councilmembers about open-air drug markets and drug offenses, Smith noted the department, through guidance from past administrations, does not respond to low-level drug offenses unless they are connected to another, violent crime.
“It became, we’re not going to do street level enforcement, we feel our resources are going to be better used on mid-level to higher level, because those also tend to be the ones that generate the violence,” Smith said. “Whether there’s data to back that up, I can’t tell you, but I know anecdotally that was the feeling among prior administrations.”
Councilmember Stanley Martin questioned Smith about the police department’s protest response policies. As interim chief, Smith spearheaded a change in departmental policy towards protest, which included limits and bans on the use of different chemical irritants
One of Smith’s largest acts as interim chief was spearheading a shift in departmental policy towards protests, including limiting or banning the use of different chemical irritants and sharply curbing the use of the long range acoustical device, colloquially known as a “sound cannon,” which can emit harsh tones to disperse crowds.
Martin asked Smith why he didn’t step in during alleged abuses of force during the protests of September 2020.
“While you were standing there in your role, you had the opportunity to intervene, you had the opportunity to step in, to stop people from being tear gassed, from being shot with pepper bullets, from being arrested with police officers’ knees on their necks, why didn’t you intervene?” Martin asked.
Smith said that during the protests, he was given the duty to call out traffic patrol points and provide security for the Public Safety Building. He said the only time he entered the crowd was to remove two officers that were injured and to get them into the Public Safety Building.
“Many of my briefings for that was, ‘You will take a plastic water bottle, you are not going to react. You will take small rocks, you are not going to react. If you’re going to react, I am going to tell you when to react,’” Smith said. “That was the impetus for the change, and as things changed later, I was able to work under Chief Herriott to make the change of policy into law.”
Smith is the fourth person to hold the office of Chief since 2018, and if he’s confirmed he’d be the department’s first permanent chief since La’Ron Singletary, who was fired by then-Mayor Lovely Warren in the fall of 2020 as a result of fallout from the death of Daniel Prude.