In shared mes­sage, po­lice and pro­test­ers want Rochester mayor to re­sign

War­ren faces a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis as leader of a N.Y. city in a po­lar­iz­ing na­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - ELECTION 2020 - BY SHAYNA JACOBS, CHRIS LIBONATI AND TIM CRAIG tim.craig@wash­post.com shayna.jacobs@wash­post.com Jacobs and Libonati re­ported from Rochester. Craig re­ported from Wash­ing­ton. Mark Ber­man in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

rochester, n.y. — Mayor Lovely A. War­ren has al­ways branded her­self as a re­former, push­ing to cre­ate a po­lice ac­count­abil­ity board and scrap­ping an un­pop­u­lar red-light cam­era pro­gram be­cause she be­lieved it un­fairly sad­dled the poor with tick­ets they could not af­ford to pay.

But over the past week, the mayor of New York’s third-most­pop­u­lous city has found her­self in the throes of a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis af­ter po­lice body cam­era footage was made public show­ing a hood be­ing placed on the head of Daniel Prude, a Black man hav­ing a men­tal health cri­sis, in March. He died a week later.

The city’s po­lice chief and other high-rank­ing de­part­ment of­fi­cials are leav­ing their jobs amid the public out­cry. War­ren now has the chance to re­make her po­lice de­part­ment, but she must do so af­ter dis­tanc­ing her­self from po­lice lead­er­ship and leav­ing ques­tions about her in­volve­ment with the case unan­swered. Now, the po­lice union and ac­tivists aligned with the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment have the same mes­sage for her: Re­sign.

War­ren, 43, is the first African Amer­i­can woman to lead Rochester, a di­verse work­ing-class city where White res­i­dents make up a plu­ral­ity of the pop­u­la­tion. But af­ter more than a week of chaos here on the south­ern shores of Lake On­tario, War­ren has been thrust into the na­tion’s cul­tural bat­tles over polic­ing. She joins Black fe­male may­ors across the coun­try who are now at the fore­front of lead­ing in an in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized na­tion. They have been forced to re­spond to, and defuse, the na­tion’s boil­ing ten­sions over po­lice ac­count­abil­ity and protests that have some­times turned vi­o­lent, while show­ing sup­port for the racial jus­tice move­ment and talk­ing about the chal­lenge of be­ing a Black woman watch­ing Black peo­ple die at the hands of po­lice.

“My heart is with the fam­ily of Daniel Prude,” War­ren said Sept. 3. “As a mayor, mother, sis­ter, daugh­ter and as a Black woman, I am filled with grief and anger at my­self for all of the fail­ures that led to his death.”

War­ren finds her­self wedged be­tween the de­mands of young, lib­eral pro­test­ers de­mand­ing sweep­ing change and the re­al­i­ties of gov­ern­ing, in­clud­ing man­ag­ing of­ten con­ser­va­tive po­lice of­fi­cers who form the back­bone of the city work­force. War­ren has voiced sup­port for many of the pro­test­ers’ de­mands and said her po­lice chief should not be fired be­fore he re­signed. Her of­fice de­clined mul­ti­ple re­quests for com­ment.

“The may­ors, par­tic­u­larly African Amer­i­can fe­male may­ors, are in a very ad­verse sit­u­a­tion be­cause you don’t get the ben­e­fit of the doubt from ei­ther side,” said Karen Free­man-Wil­son, who is Black and served as the mayor of Gary, Ind., from 2012 to 2019.

Al­though Black may­ors such as Muriel E. Bowser (D) in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., and Keisha Lance Bot­toms (D) in Atlanta have deftly nav­i­gated around their crit­ics on both the right and the left, the cri­sis now fac­ing War­ren ap­pears far more volatile.

Among lo­cal ac­tivists, there has been wide­spread skep­ti­cism of War­ren’s claim that she did not know about how Prude died or see the video un­til early Au­gust, when the city re­sponded to a public in­for­ma­tion re­quest from a lawyer who rep­re­sented Prude’s brother. Prude was naked and hand­cuffed in the video, which shows of­fi­cers forc­ing Prude’s head and chest onto the pave­ment on March 23. He died March 30.

War­ren still has not an­swered many ques­tions about her in­volve­ment in the case, in­clud­ing why she sus­pended seven po­lice of­fi­cers only af­ter the video be­came public. With her public sup­port dwin­dling, War­ren is now try­ing to make amends to her con­stituents.

“At this point we are just feel­ing be­trayed and trau­ma­tized by a Black woman be­ing one of the main op­pres­sors of the Black com­mu­nity,” said Stan­ley Martin, a Black protest or­ga­nizer with Free the Peo­ple ROC.

The de­bate about War­ren’s lead­er­ship in the Prude case largely comes down to what did she know and when af­ter the Mon­roe County Med­i­cal Ex­am­iner ruled Prude’s death a homi­cide on April 16. His au­topsy showed he died as a re­sult of “com­pli­ca­tions of as­phyxia in the set­ting of phys­i­cal re­straint.” The re­port also said Prude had PCP in his sys­tem. War­ren said the po­lice told her Prude died of a drug over­dose.

The Mon­roe County dis­trict at­tor­ney passed the case on to the New York at­tor­ney gen­eral the day Prude’s death was ruled a homi­cide. The dis­trict at­tor­ney said the re­fer­ral was man­dated by a 2015 gu­ber­na­to­rial or­der.

But by early June, top le­gal ad­vis­ers to War­ren and the city knew about the ex­is­tence of the body cam­era footage. City lawyers con­sulted with an as­sis­tant state at­tor­ney gen­eral about whether to re­lease the footage pub­licly; they said the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice ad­vised them not to do so while Prude’s death was un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice has said there was no rec­om­men­da­tion to with­hold in­for­ma­tion.

The city lawyers said they re­layed the rec­om­men­da­tion to War­ren. The at­tor­neys ad­mit­ted they ap­proached a lawyer for Prude’s fam­ily in early Au­gust to see if the fam­ily had an in­ter­est in set­tling the case be­fore a law­suit was filed. War­ren said she did not see the video un­til Aug. 4. She sus­pended seven po­lice of­fi­cers Sept. 3, a day af­ter Prude’s fam­ily re­leased the video pub­licly.

War­ren, who was an at­tor­ney be­fore be­ing elected mayor in 2013, is also watch­ing her re­la­tion­ship with Rochester po­lice of­fi­cers erode.

On Tues­day, po­lice chief La’Ron Sin­gle­tary and the rest of the de­part­ment’s com­mand staff stepped down, leav­ing War­ren to stand solo as the public face of the scan­dal. The city coun­cil later an­nounced it was hir­ing a prom­i­nent New York City-based law firm to con­duct an “in­de­pen­dent re­view and in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the in­ter­nal pro­cesses that oc­curred” be­tween the time of­fi­cers first made con­tact with Prude and when the video of the en­counter be­came public.

The ten­sions be­tween War­ren and the lead­ers of the Rochester Po­lice Lo­cust Club, the union rep­re­sent­ing more than 700 of­fi­cers, have been espe­cially in­tense.

Af­ter Sin­gle­tary an­nounced he will re­tire at the end of this month, Lo­cust Club Pres­i­dent Mike Mazzeo de­manded War­ren also step aside, say­ing she can no longer keep the com­mu­nity safe. He later said War­ren had made tac­ti­cal de­ci­sions for the po­lice de­part­ment, though he did not spec­ify what they were.

“The con­fi­dence of the peo­ple and of our mem­bers has been crit­i­cally lost,” Mazzeo said.

War­ren re­sponded with a blis­ter­ing as­sault on Mazzeo, stat­ing both he and the of­fi­cers in­volved in Prude’s death en­gage in “ar­chaic polic­ing.”

“For 30 years, the prob­lem with polic­ing in Rochester are cops like Mike Mazzeo that watch the video of Daniel Prude’s death and see noth­ing wrong,” War­ren said in a state­ment.

Free­man-Wil­son, now the pres­i­dent of the Chicago Ur­ban League, said it is par­tic­u­larly hard for Black fe­male may­ors to “nav­i­gate the space be­tween” em­bold­ened lib­eral ac­tivists and other more rigid com­po­nents of a city’s po­lit­i­cal sphere, in­clud­ing po­lice unions. The ac­tivists, Free­manWil­son said, in­creas­ingly ex­pect that a Black fe­male ex­ec­u­tive will im­me­di­ately draw upon her own ex­pe­ri­ences bat­tling racial in­jus­tice, and her own his­tory rep­re­sent­ing “the first of their class” to quickly push through de­sired changes.

At the same time, she said, some lead­ers of es­tab­lished groups can seem dis­mis­sive of women in power.

“They ex­pect us to toe the line,” Free­man-Wil­son said.

But Wil­liam P. Light­foot, a Wash­ing­ton at­tor­ney and top po­lit­i­cal ad­viser to Bowser, noted most big-city may­ors, re­gard­less of their race or gen­der, are fac­ing sim­i­lar man­age­ment and gov­ern­ing hur­dles this year.

He noted that New York Mayor Bill de Bla­sio (D) and Port­land Mayor Ted Wheeler (D), both of whom are White, are also strug­gling to jug­gle crit­i­cisms from both ac­tivists and po­lice unions. There are sim­ply more Black fe­male may­ors than there have been in the past, Light­foot said. Women of color cur­rently serve as may­ors in 10 of the na­tion’s 100 largest cities — which do not in­clude Rochester — while there was only one 20 years ago, ac­cord­ing the Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Women in Pol­i­tics at Rut­gers Univer­sity.

“This is the tough­est time in the his­tory of the coun­try to be the mayor of a city,” said Light­foot, who was Bowser’s cam­paign chair­man. “We have a pan­demic go­ing on that is killing peo­ple. We have an econ­omy that has col­lapsed where our down­towns are de­serted, and we have the emo­tion tied to protests of so­cial jus­tice and there is vi­o­lence as­so­ci­ated with that, and all of those forces are com­ing into play re­gard­less of race.”

Still, the crises fac­ing ur­ban Amer­ica this year present a gen­er­a­tional op­por­tu­nity for may­ors to push for re­struc­tur­ing, even if that means they are not go­ing to make every­body happy, said Can­dis Watts Smith, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence and African Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Penn State.

“Ac­tivists push us to dream big­ger and to dream broader,” Watts Smith said.

With a va­cant com­mand staff, ob­servers said War­ren might have a chance to change polic­ing in the city.

A key com­po­nent of any over­haul of the Rochester po­lice force will also prob­a­bly in­volve re­vamp­ing how the de­part­ment re­sponds to calls in­volv­ing peo­ple who are sus­pected of suf­fer­ing from a men­tal health or sub­stance abuse is­sue, ex­perts said. Men­tal health and po­lice train­ing ex­perts said po­lice in Prude’s case failed to use decades-old tac­tics de­signed to bring un­sta­ble peo­ple into cus­tody.

City coun­cil mem­bers are al­ready push­ing for po­lice to pair up with trained men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als when re­spond­ing to 911 calls. War­ren, in the wake of Prude’s death, has promised to re­vamp the way cri­sis calls are han­dled in Rochester.

“There is no train­ing in the world that tells you to put three bod­ies on top of a prone, naked, un­armed man face down who is an emo­tion­ally dis­turbed per­son on drugs,” said for­mer Rochester cor­po­ra­tion coun­sel Linda Kings­ley, who will serve as a pro bono ad­viser to the city coun­cil in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Kings­ley, who served un­der for­mer Rochester mayor Wil­liam John­son for more than a decade, be­lieves the public time­line has led peo­ple to lose trust in War­ren.

“Right now the dis­trust in the com­mu­nity, par­tic­u­larly with the young peo­ple, is just dev­as­tat­ing,” she said.

John­son, 78, said War­ren faces “a com­pli­cated pic­ture” but must step up to try to ease ten­sions and change the hearts of her harsh­est crit­ics.

“You need to sit there, and you need to give some in­di­ca­tion that you are sin­cerely com­mit­ted to mak­ing changes,” John­son said.

In June, War­ren ap­pointed John­son, the city’s first Black mayor, to a com­mis­sion cre­ated to ad­dress racial in­jus­tices in re­sponse to Ge­orge Floyd’s death and the na­tional move­ment it sparked.

The idea that Floyd was the in­spi­ra­tion for the Rochester­based in­ves­tiga­tive body months af­ter Prude qui­etly died af­ter be­ing in po­lice cus­tody here “was so ironic be­cause we had our own [Floyd] sit­u­a­tion, and no­body ever ac­knowl­edged that it ever ex­isted,” John­son said.

The com­mis­sion was blind­sided by Prude’s case, he said, as were the res­i­dents who gather and march the streets nightly.

“I sat in her chair for 12 years,” John­son said of War­ren. “You bet­ter know what the po­lice de­part­ment is do­ing.”

LIBBY MARCH FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Lovely A. War­ren is the first African Amer­i­can woman elected mayor of Rochester, N.Y., where protests erupted over po­lice han­dling of Daniel Prude, who was in a men­tal health cri­sis and later died. War­ren, like Black fe­male may­ors across the coun­try, is lead­ing at a time of in­creas­ing di­vi­sive­ness.

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