Law enforcement and other officials in Rochester, New York, worked for months to withhold information about the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man whom police hooded and pinned to the ground in a graphic video that has drawn a national outcry, documents show.
Prude’s family has accused authorities of a coverup amid growing fallout from the case, one of the latest to spark outrage over police treatment of Black Americans. Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren fired the city’s police chief Monday after an internal investigation concluded that police commanders and city officials did not take Prude’s death seriously enough and may have sought to mislead the public. Prude, who was detained by police March 23, died a week later. A medical examiner ruled his death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
The documents, which the city released Monday, capture repeated attempts by officials to prevent the full picture of Prude’s death from getting out — with authorities’ citing an ongoing investigation and privacy laws among their justifications — as they worried about a public backlash in a climate of growing scrutiny of police.
“We certainly do not want people to misinterpret the officers’ actions and conflate this incident with any recent killings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement nationally,” Deputy Police Chief Mark Simmons wrote to Chief La’Ron Singletary in June as protests over the death of George Floyd swept the country. “That would simply be a false narrative, and could create animosity and potentially violent blowback in this community as a result.”
Singletary wrote back about 20 minutes later: “I totally agree.”
Officials said Prude was experiencing a mental breakdown during his arrest. Experts have said Rochester police failed to use long-standing tactics designed to help those in crisis.
“You’re trying to kill me!” Prude says on video after police cover his head with a “spit hood,” meant to protect officers from bodily fluids. Officials said Prude claimed he had coronavirus.
Warren cited the city review — which drew on more than 300 pages of police records and email correspondence — in announcing the dismissal of Singletary, who had said he planned to step down at the end of September. Warren also suspended the city’s top lawyer and its spokesperson for 30 days.
Warren named Simmons as acting interim police chief Monday. Simmons and other members of the department’s senior command were demoted last week.
“This initial look has shown what so many have suspected, that we have a pervasive problem in the Rochester Police Department,” said Warren, a Democrat, in a statement. She said officials throughout the city’s government should have taken the case more seriously.
Investigator Jacqueline Shuman, a spokesperson for the police department, declined to comment on the report and its findings.
“We are unable to comment on this case as this is an ongoing investigation,” she said in an email.
The case did not enter the national spotlight until Prude’s family earlier this month released the video from a police body camera, in which one officer places his hands on Prude, who was naked and handcuffed, as he lies face down. Another officer can be seen putting his knee on Prude’s back. Warren has said the police chief told her earlier only that Prude had overdosed on drugs — an autopsy report noted that Prude had PCP in his system — and did not get a full account until August, after a Prude family attorney’s open-records request.
Singletary wrote in an April email that the mayor “has been in the loop” since the day Prude was placed in custody. Describing the medical examiner’s ruling, Singletary writes that Prude’s death was deemed a homicide with three “attributing factors:" “PCP in his system,” “Excited Delirium” and “Resisting Arrest."
Warren has not answered many questions about her involvement in the case. She said she did not see the video until Aug. 4. She suspended seven police officers Sept. 3, the day after the video was made public. The mayor’s office could not be reached for comment.
New York Attorney General Letitia James opened an investigation and announced earlier this month it would impanel a grand jury to examine the case, but the police department’s review cleared the officers, saying they had acted appropriately.
The documents suggest police were thinking carefully about how to frame their encounter with Prude early on. A note on a police report suggests Prude be listed as a potential offender rather than just an “individual.”
“Make him a suspect,” the note reads. Police believed Prude had broken a store window and unlawfully entered a building, according to the documents.
Prude’s family quickly enlisted a lawyer who sought any documents related to Prude’s interactions with police in March and filed April 3 for the city to preserve its evidence. But they ran into delays.
At one point, Simmons, the deputy police chief, suggested denying the request because the case was still under investigation by the attorney general and could lead to criminal charges.
Stephanie Prince, a lawyer for the city of Rochester, suggested showing video to the Prude family’s lawyer in person but not giving them a copy.
“This way, the AG is making the file available to the family’s attorney, but we are not releasing anything to the public,” wrote Prince.
Prince said the strategy of withholding copies came from a staffer in the attorney general’s office.
James’s office has said it never recommended withholding information and has disputed the city’s account. The office began investigating Prude’s case in April, and it first showed the police body camera footage of his arrest to the family in July, according to the agency’s timeline.
“We have not asked the city of Rochester nor the Rochester Police Department (RPD) to refrain from launching an internal investigation,” James said in a Sept. 3 statement.
"The Prude family and the greater Rochester community deserve answers, and we will continue to work around the clock to provide them,” she added.
The report, which was released Monday and prepared by Rochester Deputy Mayor James Smith, also outlines eight recommendations for city reforms — including requesting a Justice Department review of the death, reexamining police policies and establishing a citizen-led panel to suggest further overhauls to the department.
The report concludes that the response to Prude’s death showed a “culture of insularity, acceptance and, quite frankly, callousness” within the Rochester Police Department. The officers involved displayed a “cavalier and unsympathetic attitude” toward Prude, while department commanders and investigators did not seriously investigate their conduct, the report states.
“I cannot express strongly enough we can NEVER return to ‘business as usual,’” Smith wrote.
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