Legacies of a Police Killing in Rochester, NY: Denise Hawkins, Police Reform, and White Fear

Ted Forsyth, Alfred University
Mallory Szymanski, Alfred University

This paper traces the life, death, and legacy of Denise Hawkins, a mother, dancer, and wife who was killed at age 18 by a white police officer at the front door of her cousin’s basement apartment in 1975 in Rochester, NY. Rochester already possessed national notoriety for police violence and resistance in the 1964 uprising, and when Hawkins was killed, many of the tensions remained: disagreement among Black activists about the appropriate method of pursuing justice; Rochester City Council’s desire to assuage fears of uprising, demonstrate loyalty to the police force, and avoid becoming a national spectacle; de facto segregation in housing and education; and over-policing of Black neighborhoods. Through Hawkins’ biography and the community response after her death, this paper examines the development and efficacy of nearly 100 police reform policy recommendations, submitted r by an empaneled blue ribbon commission, that were passed by City Council in 1977 including Rochester’s second attempt at a civilian review board that lasted until 1992. We argue that these reforms did little to prevent police use of deadly force but were ultimately more focused on addressing white fears than saving Black lives.

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 Presented in Session 221. State Violence and Illegal Markets