Rochester Police Chief Michael Ciminelli said Monday he’s frustrated at the ongoing disruptions that take place in the North Clinton neighborhood in the hours after the annual Puerto Rican Festival ends.
While a strong police presence and weeks of planning helped prevent any deaths or serious injuries from occurring this year, those actions haven’t enabled police to prevent the problems from reappearing each year.
“It hasn’t had a deterrent effect in terms of stopping it from happening in the first place,” Ciminelli said. “It’s a frustration that we all feel and certainly the residents in the northeast part of the city who suffer through this every year. I know its a frustration that the organizers of the festival feel.”
More: Arrests, unruliness roil north Rochester following Puerto Rican Festival
Rochester police moved from one hot spot to another Sunday night to disperse crowds and city firefighters put out garbage can fires in the neighborhoods bounded by North Clinton Avenue, Clifford Avenue, Portland Avenue and Norton Street.
Ciminelli said that officers at times had rocks and bottles thrown at them as they dealt with “pockets of disruption.” Twenty people were arrested on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to traffic offenses.
Those arrests were not directly related to the annual festival to celebrate Puerto Rican heritage and no arrests were made at the festival itself, but post-festival disturbances and arrests have become synonymous with the final night of the celebration. Orlando Ortiz, president of the Puerto Rican Festival Festival, said there is some “disappointment” and “frustration” among the the event’s organizers.
“It’s up to the community to kind of embrace this,” Ortiz said. “We have been trying different things, like ending the festival earlier in the day, talking to community and organization leaders, which has definitely helped, but ultimately, it’s up to the community to own it and make an impact for the better.”
Ortiz said there are no plans to make any changes to the festival.
“The 20,000-plus we get into the festival for the three days is great,” Ortiz said. “I don’t want to tarnish anyone over the actions of people that don’t even attend the festival.
“In our end, we are making no changes, regarding the festival as a result of the actions on Sunday night. This something worth maintaining. As organizers were looking forward to the 50th (next year) and look forward to celebrating that.”
Ortiz said that post-festival disturbances sometimes would last until 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., until organizers began to end the festival at 7:30 p.m. and worked with the police department about six years ago. He also said that organizers have researched how similar issues are handled in other cities, in the hope of sharing with the city.
The disturbances have been marked by large crowds and a disorganized caravan of cars that make their way through the North Clinton neighborhood. Drivers honk their horns and wave flags, with passengers hanging out of windows or climbing on the outside of vehicles.
Police say that this sort of dangerous behavior is what led to the death of 21-year-old Unique Kearse last year during an impromptu parade. Officials said she was driving a car and hanging out of a window when she lost control and the vehicle flipped over into a yard. She later died from her injuries. Another man fell off the roof of a moving car and broke his arm.
In 2016, police said that bottles, eggs and rocks were thrown at them and paintballs were fired at them. Officers used verbal warnings, pepper ball deployment and long range acoustics to break up disorderly crowds.
Two stabbings occurred during the post-festival aftermath in 2015 and a firetruck was damaged when bystanders threw rocks at it. Police made just two arrests that year.
Huge tactical challenge
Ciminelli says the primary objective is not to make mass arrests but rather to protect both the participants and the people living in the neighborhood.
“In a group disorder situation, arrests have to be made intelligently,” Ciminelli said. “If we can disperse the crowds and stop the behavior without making arrests we will, but obviously in some cases we have to.”
The primary challenge officials face is that this annual disturbance is not part of any official event. There are no organizers that police can work with, no planned routes or defined area. It creates a huge tactical challenge, with more than 200 officers participating in the effort last night assigned to the detail which spanned roughly 4.5 square miles.
During a festival or parade, for example, fire and ambulance crews can have plans in place to get around streets that have been closed. The unplanned nature of the disturbances Sunday night created havoc for first responders.
“We had a resident who suffered a seizure on Sobieski Street last night ” said Commander Fabian Rivera, who oversees RPD’s special operations division. “We had to bring in a team to clear the road and have officers escort the ambulance to the location.”
City firefighters encountered a similar delay in reaching the scene of a fire on Sunday night. They were forced to back down a side street and turn around when crowds blocked their route. First responders were also delayed in their efforts to respond to a shooting on Clifford Avenue.
Ciminelli sought to correct some media reports that police on the scene Sunday night were wearing “riot gear,” or what police prefer to call personnel protective equipment. This typically consists of hard plastic shields worn on the chest, arms and legs, along with a helmet and face shield. None of his officers were wearing that equipment Sunday night, Ciminelli said.
“Some officers did wear helmets last night, but they did not don their helmets until they started getting rocks and bottles thrown at them,” he said.
Rivera said the decision to wear the full protective gear is only done in situations where officer safety is in jeopardy. Because it’s so cumbersome, it’s difficult for officers to work for very long while wearing that outfit.
“It’s not something we would don just to march our boys up and down Clinton Avenue for no reason,” Rivera said. “It’s a decision we weigh very seriously based on the threat level.”