Posted on September 5, 2020

7 Police Officers Suspended as a Black Man’s Suffocation Roils Rochester

Sarah Maslin Nir, et al., New York Times, September 3, 2020

Seven Rochester police officers were suspended on Thursday in the suffocation of a Black man as he was being detained in March, although the mayor and senior state officials faced escalating questions about why more than five months passed before action was taken.

The man, Daniel Prude, who was having a psychotic episode, was handcuffed by officers after he ran into the street naked in the middle of the cold night and told at least one passer-by that he had the coronavirus. Mr. Prude began spitting, and the officers responded by pulling a mesh hood over his head, according to police body camera footage.

When he tried to rise, the officers forced Mr. Prude face down on the ground, one of them pushing his head to the pavement, the video footage showed. Mr. Prude was held down by the police for two minutes, and had to be resuscitated. He died a week later at the hospital.

His death did not receive widespread attention until Wednesday, when his family released raw police videos of the encounter, which they just obtained through an open records request. The scene — a Black man, handcuffed and sitting in a street, wearing nothing but a white hood — seemed a shocking combination of physical helplessness and racist imagery from another era.

Rochester, a city of 200,000 in Western New York, became the latest city to be roiled by the death of a Black person in police custody, with protesters taking to the streets.

By about 9:45 p.m. on Thursday, a crowd of perhaps 100 demonstrators had gathered outside Rochester’s Public Safety Building on Exchange Boulevard. {snip}

At around 10:30 p.m., the dozen or so police officers who had been monitoring the demonstrators from behind a barricade were joined by around 20 reinforcements in riot gear.

The officers suddenly surged toward the barricade and began firing an irritant into the crowd. It was unclear what led them to do so.

The protesters pushed into the barricade toward the police, prompting the officers to fire the irritant again, as protesters yelled, “Why? Why?”

The back and forth continued for 45 minutes or so, with the police repeatedly firing irritant.

The disciplinary action against the seven officers was the first in response to Mr. Prude’s death. In a news conference on Thursday afternoon, Mayor Lovely Warren apologized to the Prude family, saying that Mr. Prude had been failed “by our police department, our mental health care system, our society. And he was failed by me.”

Ms. Warren did not offer details on why the investigations into the March 23 encounter had taken so long, but suggested that she had been misled by the police chief, La’Ron D. Singletary.

“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.

Chief Singletary bristled on Wednesday at the suggestion that his department had been trying to keep Mr. Prude’s death away from public attention.

“This is not a cover-up,” he said, adding that he ordered criminal and internal investigations hours after the encounter. He stood by the officers’ response to what had initially been a mental-health related call: “Our job is to try to get some sort of medical intervention, and that’s exactly what happened that night.”

On Wednesday, the state attorney general, Letitia James, made her first statement on the case, offering condolences to Mr. Prude’s family and promising “a fair and independent investigation.”

“We will work tirelessly to provide the transparency and accountability that all our communities deserve,” she said.

Investigations into police-related killings of unarmed civilians in New York are overseen by Ms. James’s office, and findings of fact are not publicized until complete. In Mr. Prude’s case, Ms. James’s investigation began in April, and is continuing.


The Monroe County medical examiner ruled Mr. Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,” according to an autopsy report.

“Excited delirium” and acute intoxication by phencyclidine, or the drug PCP, were contributing factors, the report said.

The city did not identify the officers who were suspended.