Records show bid to avoid dis­clo­sures in Prude’s death

Po­lice in Rochester, N.Y., tried to limit dam­age in case of Black ar­restee

The Washington Post - - ELECTION 2020 - BY HAN­NAH KNOWLES, REIS THEBAULT AND SHAYNA JA­COBS han­nah.knowles@wash­post.com reis.thebault@wash­post.com shayna.ja­cobs@wash­post.com

Law en­force­ment and other of­fi­cials in Rochester, N.Y., 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 re­leased Mon­day 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 the 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.

“This ini­tial look has shown what so many have sus­pected, that we have a per­va­sive prob­lem in the Rochester Po­lice Depart­ment,” War­ren, a Demo­crat, said in a state­ment. She said of­fi­cials through­out the city’s govern­ment should have taken the case more se­ri­ously.

In­ves­ti­ga­tor Jac­que­line Shu­man, a spokes­woman 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 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. Rochester’s mayor 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-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 wrote that Prude’s death was deemed a homi­cide with three “at­tribut­ing fac­tors: “PCP in his sys­tem,” “Ex­cited Delir­ium” and “Re­sist­ing Ar­rest."

The state at­tor­ney gen­eral 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 state 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 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,” Prince wrote.

The of­fice of New York At­tor­ney Gen­eral Leti­tia James has said it never rec­om­mended with­hold­ing in­for­ma­tion. But Prince said the strat­egy of with­hold­ing copies came from a staffer in the at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice. James’s of­fice could not be reached for com­ment.

The re­port re­leased Mon­day, which was 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.

LIBBY MARCH/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Pro­test­ers and po­lice face off on Court Street in Rochester on Sept. 4. Po­lice fenced off a por­tion of Court Street and de­manded that peo­ple dis­perse.the city has joined a slate of oth­ers across the coun­try em­broiled in protests over the deaths of Black peo­ple at the hands of po­lice.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

Rochester Mayor Lovely A. War­ren fired Po­lice Chief La’ron Sin­gle­tary, above, on Mon­day over the Daniel Prude case.

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