In March, Rochester, New York, police officer Matthew Drake shot and killed Tyshon Jones, a Black man who was in the midst of a mental health crisis when police found him walking down the street while holding a knife. Drake, who is white, has since been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and appears to have faced no departmental consequences for the shooting. But the incident followed a pattern in his career.
In the eight years before he killed Jones, Drake drove his police cruiser into a crowd of people, was involved in the brutal beating and prosecution of another Black man, David Vann, allegedly beat a police brutality protester with a baton, and drove an inebriated young woman around in his personal vehicle for 40 minutes in violation of department policy. He was issued minor reprimands for some of these incidents and kept his job.
The fact that Drake has remained on the force long enough to kill a man is indicative of the Rochester Police Department’s systemic failure to appropriately discipline officers, said Elliot Dolby Shields, an attorney who represents the family of Daniel Prude, who Rochester police killed last year. Dolby Shields represents many people who say they have suffered violence at the hands of Rochester police, including Vann, and the multiple plaintiffs in a sweeping civil rights lawsuit filed against the city in April.
The lawsuit alleges that by covering up officer misconduct and failing to discipline officers who use excessive force over a 40-year period, Rochester has cultivated a culture of violence and impunity in its police department.
“It’s not just Drake,” said Dolby Shields. “It says a lot about the city that there are multiple officers that have serious misconduct histories who are never appropriately disciplined. It creates a culture within the department that says not only is it OK, it encourages these officers to act like this.”
Drake did not respond when contacted for this story. A spokesperson for the Rochester Police Department also did not respond. In response to the class action lawsuit, the city of Rochester denied all allegations of wrongdoing.
According to an analysis of data released by the Rochester Police Department (RPD), from 2001 to 2016, the RPD’s Professional Standards Section investigated 923 civilian-generated allegations of excessive force by officers. The department’s chiefs sustained only 16 (1.7 percent) of those complaints. And even when allegations of force or misconduct were sustained, the discipline was minimal. The harshest penalties given were six suspensions, most of which ranged from one to 20 days.
In the last two years alone, police in Rochester have handcuffed a 10-year-old girl during a traffic stop, pepper-sprayed a distressed 9-year-old girl, and tackled and pepper-sprayed a woman with her 3-year-old child. Two convictions have been dismissed — and hundreds more could follow — after the Monroe County district attorney’s office notified the public defender’s office of serious credibility issues with two Rochester police officers who had previously lied under oath. Two current officers were arrested in the past few months in unrelated cases for grand larceny and driving while intoxicated. Both have pleaded not guilty.
And in March 2020, Rochester police officers laughed and joked as they pushed Daniel Prude’s naked body into the snow-covered pavement until he was brain dead. The response to his killing became emblematic of Rochester’s handling of police violence.