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Rochester police won’t face charges in Daniel Prude’s death

Prude died after police handcuffed him, placed a mesh hood over his head, and pressed him onto the pavement. 

Demonstrators march for justice for Daniel Prude on September 7, 2020, in Rochester, New York.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

None of the seven police officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude — a 41-year-old Black man — in Rochester, New York, will be charged, a grand jury decided on Tuesday.

A video showing officers killing Prude last March had surfaced in September, as nationwide protests against police violence engulfed much of the country. Rochester police had received a call about a distressed, shirtless man claiming he had Covid-19, and when they arrived, Prude appeared to be having a psychotic episode. The officers responded by handcuffing him, placing a mesh hood over his head, and pressing him onto the pavement until he became unresponsive.

Prude’s death was followed by a series of apparent cover-ups and delay tactics, including a deputy police officer advising the police chief not to release the body camera footage to the victim’s family. In a police report in June, an officer even noted, “Make him the suspect,” referring to their confrontation with Prude. When the video was released and protests ensued, Rochester’s top police officials resigned.

How the grand jury reached their decision on Tuesday remains unknown, but a Monroe County Court judge granted New York Attorney General Letitia James’ request to release minutes related to the investigation — a similar demand was made, and granted, over the Breonna Taylor grand jury decision that resulted in no murder charges for the officers involved. “The public deserves to know what transpires behind closed doors,” James said.

Prude’s case — and the lack of police accountability — shines a light on activists’ call to rethink the role of police, especially when it comes to responding to those with mental illness. On Tuesday evening, more than 150 people marched through Rochester protesting the decision.

“Daniel Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis and what he needed was compassion, care, and help from trained professionals. Tragically, he received none of those things,” James said in a statement on Tuesday. “The current laws on deadly force have created a system that utterly and abjectly failed Mr. Prude and so many others before him. Serious reform is needed, not only at the Rochester Police Department, but to our criminal justice system as a whole.”

The Daniel Prude case highlights the call to divert police funds to mental health services

In the days after New York imposed lockdown measures to curb the rise of Covid-19, Joe Prude — Daniel’s older brother — invited his younger brother to Rochester in the hope of helping with his mental health issues.

When Prude stormed out of his brother’s house at roughly 3 am, seemingly having a mental breakdown, his older brother thought to call the police for help. The video, taken from the officers’ body cameras, shows Prude standing naked in the middle of the street, soaked with snow. The officers pointed a taser at Prude and cuffed him. When they placed a hood over his head, which officers say they did due to concerns over the virus, Prude became less compliant. Officers later pressed his face down onto the pavement and applied force on his back and head as Prude begged them to stop. He later lost consciousness, and he died days later.

Prude’s case highlighted a deep-rooted problem baked into most police departments: Armed police officers are ill-equipped to handle situations that involve people with mental health illnesses or drug addiction. This scenario is further proof for activists to push for a “divest and invest” model, in which a fraction of law enforcement revenue is diverted elsewhere, such as mental health services or housing assistance. If there had been another emergency number that Prude’s brother could have called instead of the police, Prude might still be alive today.

“In Rochester, our goal is to defund the police as a way toward abolition and create a public safety model that is focused on providing resources and helping the people,” said Stanley Martin, civil rights organizer with Free the People Rochester, “and not having armed men with guns who are not from this community and who have no idea what it’s like to be poor and Black and simply needing help and support.”

In Olympia, Washington, for instance, city officials are taking a different approach to responding to nonviolent incidents that typically involve the homeless or someone with a mental illness. Instead of sending armed police officers to respond to an emergency, the city would send “crisis responders” to calm the situation and later connect the individuals with community resources and services. It’s a model that a growing number of cities across the country are taking into consideration, especially in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last summer.

A similar approach has existed in Eugene, Oregon — where the city dispatches young medics and mental health workers to respond to mental health-related incidents — for decades with much success. The CAHOOTS program, which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, now handles approximately 20 percent of 911 calls and has saved the city millions in police and emergency room resources.

While many Americans are turned off by the term “defunding,” according to national polls, they do support the core idea behind shifting police funds to community services. Cities and states have also started passing a slew of police accountability legislation, and several initiatives were passed through the ballot box in November — though none are as radical in terms of reimagining policing as “defunding” or “abolishment.” The most progressive ballot initiative that passed last year was Los Angeles County’s Measure J, also known as “Reimagine LA County,” which would divest 10 percent of the city’s unrestricted general funds to housing and mental health services instead of prisons and further policing in communities.

For Martin, “the goal is to limit interactions of police officers with people, and we see defunding the police as the only way to do that.”

Protesters plan to return to the streets to demand justice in Rochester and New York City on Wednesday night and the days to come.