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The killing of Daniel Prude, explained

A police killing in Rochester, New York, has resurfaced questions about the use of force against people with mental illness.

Joe Prude, the brother of Daniel Prude, looks out into the crowd as he holds his wife, Valerie, at a march for his brother on September 7 in Rochester, New York.
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The release of video of the killing of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man, in Rochester, New York, is raising new questions about the use of law enforcement as ad hoc mental health specialists in light of calls to reform, defund, or abolish the police.

There is still an ongoing investigation into Prude’s death, which has led to the resignation of all of Rochester’s top police officials. Prude was stopped by police on March 23, early on in the coronavirus pandemic, after officers responded to a call about a naked man claiming he was infected with Covid-19. He was animated and appeared distressed during his arrest, and was ultimately pinned down by officers who’d placed a hood over his head until his cries of distress — and his movements — stopped. The video, released in early September, displays Prude’s final moments as captured by an officer’s body camera, and its delayed release prompted concerns of a cover-up.

The video immediately sparked intense protests in Rochester and escalated ongoing anti-police violence protests around the United States, with demonstrators taking to the streets in honor of Prude, calling for transparency, resignations, and reforms.

Some resignations arrived on September 8, when the command staff and the chief of police, La’Ron Singletary, retired. Singletary had previously denied accusations of a cover-up, writing in his resignation announcement that “as a man of integrity, I will not sit idly by while outside entities attempt to destroy my character. The events over the past week are an attempt to destroy my character and integrity.”

The New York state attorney general’s office is continuing its investigation into the killing, having impaneled a grand jury on September 5.

The new information around Prude’s killing comes at the end of a long summer of racial unrest and protest amid a surge of attention to the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, Prude’s killing places a particular spotlight on activists’ calls to defund the police and invest in new emergency response systems that could respond to mental health crises like the one Prude experienced before his death.

What happened to Daniel Prude

On March 22, Prude — a Chicago native — traveled to Rochester to visit his older brother Joe Prude. Joe had invited his younger brother in hopes of helping with his mental health issues.

On the train, Daniel exhibited abnormal behavior, according to a Depew Police Department report that described him as “refusing to listen to orders” and “continu[ing] to smoke on the train.” Earlier in the evening preceding his death, Prude had been admitted to — and released from — the hospital over concerns he might be experiencing a mental break. By early in the morning on March 23, Daniel slipped out of Joe’s home, prompting his older brother to call the police for help.

The next time Joe would see Daniel was at the hospital a week later, when doctors asked him if he wanted to end life support. It would take the family months of legal work to discover the role police had played in his death.

Body camera footage recently released by Prude’s family, which were obtained following petitions to the state under freedom of information laws, show what happened to Prude.

The video, taken from several officers’ body cameras, begins at 3:16 am. It shows Prude standing naked in the middle of a street wet with snow. He appears in distress, but is mostly compliant with police. With a Taser pointed at him, Prude follows police commands, lying down on the pavement and allowing officers to cuff him.

For three minutes, Prude makes a variety of statements, including thanking the officers, asking for gloves, and requesting he be allowed to collect money. Officers then placed a mesh “spit hood” over Prude’s head, saying they did so out of fears about the coronavirus and their concern Prude might have it; he reportedly told a Rochester resident he did earlier in the night.

The hood aggravates Prude, and he becomes less compliant, offering prayers, requesting cigarettes, and making pronouncements that officers respond to with laughter. As the snow continues, officers place Prude face down on the street, applying force from several angles on his back and head to restrain him. Prude begs them to stop. They do not.

Shortly after that, Prude becomes unresponsive. Officers move his head and discuss the fluid that has issued from his mouth; some laugh. Then officers begin providing medical assistance. Nearly 10 minutes after the interaction began, they uncuff him and place him in an ambulance. A paramedic can be heard telling the officers that the drug PCP is why Prude became unresponsive, saying, “It’s not you guys’ fault. You’ve got to keep yourselves safe.” Prude died a week later, on March 30.

The Monroe County medical examiner and documents filed along with a lawsuit from Prude’s family describe the events that night as a homicide, noting that “complications of asphyxia” and PCP were contributing factors in Prude’s death.

Allegations of a cover-up

In late April, after conducting a review of the body camera footage, an investigation by the Rochester Department determined the officers involved had complied with their training and acted appropriately. “Based upon the investigation, the officers’ actions and conduct displayed when dealing with Prude appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training,” the report concluded, according to a legal complaint from Prude’s family. (This legal action, filed on September 8 and detailed by local media outlets, alleges an “internal cover up that began immediately after the incident.”)

For weeks more, the family was left in the dark as their private counsel pushed the state to release more information. According to reporting from the New York Times, it wasn’t until May 18, after procuring an attorney, that the family received the county medical examiner’s report explaining that police had killed Prude. And it wasn’t until July 31 that the family was invited to the state attorney general’s office to view the body camera footage that showed the homicide.

Before the family successfully petitioned for the video and documents relating to the killing, the Rochester police had classified Prude’s cause of death as a drug overdose. Police told the mayor, Lovely Warren, that Prude died after taking PCP. Warren cited this misinformation as a contributing factor to the initial creeping pace of the investigation.

“Experiencing and ultimately dying from the drug overdose in police custody, as I was told by the chief, is entirely different than what I ultimately witnessed, on the video,” the mayor said after the video was published.

According to a local news report by WHAM, former Police Chief La’Ron Singletary called the mayor to inform her of Prude’s death the day it happened. Singletary denied obscuring the truth.

“This is not a cover-up,” Singletary said. “Let me be clear when I say that: This is not a cover-up whatsoever.”

After the family released the video and demonstrations began, officials took much more aggressive action. The day after the video was released, seven officers involved in Prude’s arrest were suspended, and New York Attorney General Letitia James announced she would launch a grand jury investigation.

“The Prude family and the Rochester community have been through great pain and anguish,” James said in a statement about Prude’s death, noting that the grand jury was a prong in an “exhaustive investigation.”

Similarly, Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott expressed sympathy for “the anger, confusion, and betrayal felt by the community”; in another statement, Warren apologized for the killing.

“Mr. Daniel Prude was failed by our police, our mental health care system, our society, and by me,” Warren said during a press conference. “And for that, I apologize to the Prude family and all of our community.”

The mayor also announced reforms aimed at addressing systemic issues around police officers’ failure to provide assistance to people with mental illness. “We are doubling the availability of mental health professionals,” Warren said. “We will take our family crisis intervention team out of the police department and move it and its funding to the department of youth and recreation services.”

Within a week of the video’s release, Singletary announced he would be stepping down as police chief. He has denied public concerns that he hindered or covered up the investigation, arguing that “the mischaracterization and the politicization of the actions that I took after being informed of Mr. Prude’s death is not based on facts, and is not what I stand for.”

Instead, Singletary said he was resigning because “his career and integrity [have] been challenged,” by “outside entities.” According to Rochester City Newspaper, “The departures included the chief, one of his deputies, and two commanders, as well as the demotions of two other deputy chiefs and another commander, and came three days after the state attorney general announced that she would impanel a grand jury to consider evidence in Prude’s death.”

Yet the delay in publishing information concerning Prude’s case, the initial misclassification of the cause of death, and the long-standing inconsistencies in police descriptions of officer killings (for example, Laquan McDonald) have caused concern for activists who say the Prude case was a cover-up.

“Let’s keep the pressure up until all those responsible for Daniel Prude’s murder and cover up—including Mayor Lovely Warren—have resigned, taken responsibility, and donated their pensions to the families they allowed to be harmed,” Free The People Roc, a Rochester racial justice advocacy group, wrote on Facebook. “Together we have the ability to hold those in power accountable and bring an end to systemic police violence in our community.”

As noted by a popular “how many weren’t filmed” sign seen at Black Lives Matter protests this summer, many protesters fear that when there is no hard evidence, the police may very well get away with murder.

Prude’s case is representative of long-standing problems policing mental health

Prude’s killing is part of police departments’ long history of using lethal violence against people with mental illness. According to the Washington Post Fatal Force tracker, this year American police officers have killed more than 100 people with mental illness, including a 37-year-old Army veteran with a machete in North Carolina, an unarmed 20-year-old in a Walmart parking lot in Texas, and a 24-year old holding a toy gun in New Jersey. In the five years the Post has been keeping the tracker, at least 1,254 people with mental illness have been killed by the police — that’s 22 percent of all those killed.

Stretching back to the shooting of Eleanor Bumpurs in 1984, if not earlier, the killing of people with mental illness has long been a problem for police in New York state. The persistence of this violence highlights one of the key demands of many activists who call for “defunding” police: sending funds to mental health professionals more appropriately trained to respond to mental health crises.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein explained on a recent episode of his podcast, these activists would like to reimagine emergency response for people with mental illness:

The state would have a specific and special competency in, like, people who knew how to help others with mental health. So when those folks were having a really bad night for them and for others, there’d be someone forgiving and gentle and calm — the person you would want to be called out there if it was your sibling with bipolar disorder who had lost the plot and was wandering around.

Yet as Prude’s case shows, when someone is having a crisis, they are all too often met with lethal force rather than with deescalation and expert mental health care.

“I placed a phone call for my brother to get help,” Joe Prude told reporters. “Not for my brother to get lynched.”

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