How Daniel Prude suffocated as Rochester police restrained him
A Black man died of asphyxiation earlier this year after Rochester police officers trying to take him into protective custody pinned him to the ground while restraining him.
The incident occurred in March — two months before George Floyd's very similar death in Minneapolis touched off nationwide protests — yet it didn't become public until now.
The curtain was lifted on the death of 41-year-old Daniel T. Prude at a late-morning news conference Wednesday at which Prude's family and local activists called his death a murder and demanded that the officers involved be fired and charged in his homicide.
"We are in need of accountability for the wrongful death and murder of Daniel Prude. He was treated inhumanely and without dignity," said Ashley Gantt, a community organizer from Free the People Roc and the New York Civil Liberties Union. "These officers killed someone and are still patrolling in our community."
The case also brought calls from activists for changes to policing, including an end to the practice of having police officers respond to mental health calls. Clashes with police at the Public Safety Building Wednesday afternoon led to the arrests of nine people, including Gantt. All protesters arrested face misdemeanor charges and were issued appearance tickets.
Gantt said what happened to Prude was not an isolated event.
"The Rochester Police Department has shown time and again that they are not trained to deal with mental health crises," Gantt said. "These officers are trained to kill and not to de-escalate. Daniel's case is the epitome of what is wrong with this system and today we stand firmly seeking justice for Daniel and his family, and for all the victims who have been murdered and terrorized by the Rochester Police Department."
Prude's death on March 30 parallels numerous others locally and nationally in which people who are mentally or emotionally stressed, many of them people of color, have been killed when officers forcefully restrained them.
Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Nadia Granger ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,” according to the autopsy report.
Who was Daniel Prude: What we know about man who died in police custody
The New York state Attorney General’s office has been investigating the officers' conduct in the Prude case since mid-April and has the ability to seek criminal charges.
The officers' interaction with Prude was captured on police body-worn camera video, a compilation of which was made public Wednesday.
Public disclosure of the case and release of the video could make Rochester the latest in a series of American cities to be embroiled in controversy over a police-related death and the latest focus of national attention. The most recent high-profile case was the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake, that was captured on video.
Unlike that and some other recent police-death videos, the one compiled about the Prude case is not a graphic depiction of officers shooting or beating a suspect.
Rather, it depicts at least three officers holding Prude prone and forcing his head and chest into the pavement for several minutes until, apparently unnoticed by the officers, he stops breathing.
The events are indicative of how the rules of engagement that police use can result in harm to a suspect or a person in the throes of a mental-health episode.
A copy of the video and some case documents, including the autopsy report and internal police investigations of the case, were provided to the Democrat and Chronicle earlier this week by one of the family’s lawyers.
Local officials react
A notice of intent to sue the city has been filed and city officials are said to be aware of the family’s anger over Prude’s death.
At a press briefing Wednesday afternoon, Mayor Lovely Warren said in response to a question that she had seen footage of the officers' fatal restraint "a while ago."
"It's a disturbing video," Warren said. "I can sympathize and empathize with the family."
She said she was notified the day Prude suffocated during the restraint and was taken unresponsive to the hospital. But Warren bristled at suggestions that she lacked transparency by not disclosing Prude's death until months later.
"I want everyone to understand that at no point in time did we feel that this was something that we wanted not to disclose," Warren said, "We are precluded from getting involved in it until that agency (the AG's Office) has completed their investigation."
Singletary echoed those comments, saying several times "this is not a cover-up." He did not directly respond when a reporter asked about the fact that other police-custody deaths investigated by the attorney general are public knowledge from the beginning.
In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Letitia James called Prude's death "a tragedy" and promised resolution.
"We will follow the facts of this case and ensure a complete and thorough examination of all relevant parties," she said. Her statement said nothing about when the investigation might be done.
Singletary declined to answer any specific questions about his officers' interactions with Prude, but said he had initiated both a criminal investigation and an internal investigation the same day the incident occurred.
He said the probes were halted when the attorney general stepped in and would be finished after the state investigators have concluded their work.
However, a report on the internal RPD investigation, provided by the family's lawyer, contained a conclusion saying, "The officers' actions and conduct displayed when dealing with Prude appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training." The report was dated April 27, 11 days after the attorney general's office began its inquiry.
Singletary denied Wednesday that the internal investigation was done.
He also confirmed the officers involved in Prude's killing were not disciplined and remain on active duty. The chief said he was precluded from suspending any of the officers involved until the AG's investigation had concluded.
District Attorney Sandra Doorley said Wednesday afternoon that her office was investigating the Prude death when it received a preliminary autopsy report on April 16. That report determined the death was a homicide caused by asphyxiation.
Doorley said that she notified the Attorney General’s Office within an hour of receiving the preliminary autopsy findings.
Records show that, within a week, Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Sommers, a deputy chief in the state agency’s special investigations and prosecution unit, confirmed in a letter to Doorley that the Attorney General’s Office had launched an investigation under its mandated responsibilities.
Rochester City Council member Mary Lupien said she was "horrified, deeply saddened, and shocked" at what she saw in the video of Prude's death.
"I can’t believe something like this has been hidden from the community for so long," Lupien said outside the Public Safety Building Wednesday afternoon. "If we continue to deny these issues, we have no hopes of solving them."
Joe Prude described his brother Daniel's death as a "cold-blooded murder" and accused involved officers of handling his brother "like a damned animal" during a Wednesday morning news conference about the fatal encounter.
"I placed a phone call to get my brother help, not to have my brother lynched," he said, noting that he had called 911 for help early March 23 after his brother exited his home. "How many more brothers have to die before society understands this needs to stop?"
Joe Prude asked who will be held accountable for his brother's death, why his brother's death was "covered up" and how an officer could treat another person so inhumanely.
Prude was suffering from acute mental-health problems when Rochester officers detained him in the early morning hours of Monday, March 23, as he walked naked and bleeding down Jefferson Avenue in the southwestern part of the city.
His family told police they suspected he was under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen phencyclidine, or PCP. They said he might have ingested it unknowingly.
A resident of Chicago, Prude had arrived in Rochester the day before to stay with his brother's family in their home on Rochester's west side.
Prude rode Amtrak to Buffalo but was thrown off the train there, his brother later told police. After being driven to Rochester, he began to act out. After jumping head-first down the basement stairs, Joe Prude said he called police for help. Prude was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital for a mental-health evaluation and released the evening of March 22. Details of these events were included in the police investigation narrative and in a portion of the raw police video during which an officer talks to Joe Prude's family.
After some hours of stable behavior, Prude ran out the back door of Joe’s home at 3 a.m. when his brother was out of the room, prompting another call for help to 911.
How the incident unfolded
Police believe that Prude broke windows at a West Main Street business as he walked along before officers found him. Several people encountered him on West Main and at least one of them called 911 to report his erratic actions, the police narrative said.
Prude had left his brother’s home wearing only long underwear, a tank top and socks. He took off the clothes while on West Main, a witness told police. One passerby stopped to shoot a Facebook Live video of Prude after seeing the disturbed man get on his knees and beg another motorist to call 911.
When the motorist responded that he was on the phone with the emergency center, Prude ran off.
After being intercepted moments later by a police officer on Jefferson Avenue, Prude was ordered to lie on the ground and place his hands behind his back. He complied immediately with both directives, the video shows, saying, “Sure thing, sure thing,” as he rolled onto his stomach. The time was 3:16 a.m.
The city on Aug. 20 provided family lawyers with a total of 88 minutes of police body camera footage of the incident, pursuant to an open-records request.
The video does not show Prude offering any physical resistance to the half-dozen or so officers who converged on the scene. The video, with one gap of a few seconds, appears to show the entirety of the 11-minute interaction between Prude and the police.
The Democrat and Chronicle reviewed all 88 minutes of raw video, which was provided by the lawyer, and did not see any meaningful action that had been omitted from the compilation.
The police protocol apparently was to subdue and calm Prude and make what is known as a mental-health arrest, which is not a criminal arrest but is a civil detention for the purpose of transporting the person to receive emergency treatment.
Though handcuffed and on the ground, Prude remained agitated, squirming and shouting belligerently at times and spitting into the street. He never got up and never initiated any contact with the police.
But when the spitting began, officers covered Prude’s face and head with a white “spit hood” intended to protect police from a suspect’s bodily fluids. Prude had claimed to officers he was infected with the coronavirus, which likely raised concerns about his spitting.
The hood was the only covering he was given; Prude remained naked in temperatures just above freezing, as light snow fell, throughout the episode.
Four minutes after the police arrived, officers stood in a semicircle around Prude as he sat in the middle of Jefferson Avenue, his hands still cuffed behind his back. He yelled unintelligibly, then shouted, "Gimme that gun. Gimme that gun, I mean it!" As he yelled, he scooted on his rear toward an officer and appeared to be trying to get to his feet.
Officers immediately pushed him over. Prude can be heard saying, "You're trying to kill me!" as officers began to hold him down.
An officer identified in the video as Officer Mark Vaughn used both hands with much of his weight behind them to forcefully push the side of Prude’s head into the pavement, essentially doing a triangle push-up. The approach was different but still reminiscent of the way that George Floyd’s neck was compressed by an officer’s knee on May 25.
Another officer, identified as Troy Taladay, used his knee at one point to hold down Prude’s torso, and a third held down his legs.
Vaughn, in the report he wrote of the incident, said he had "segmented" Prude's head. He also wrote that he used a "hypoglossal nerve technique," which involves jamming fingers into a nerve below the jaw to cause pain and persuade a subject to comply.
In the video, Prude’s body movements can be seen to become less frequent. His incoherent shouts become whimpers. Then he falls silent.
The time stamps on the video indicate that Vaughn pushed down Prude’s head for 2 minutes 15 seconds before letting up and saying, “You good now?” to the prone man, who did not respond. Vaughn then resumed pushing with one hand for 45 more seconds.
Officers chatted with each other and with an emergency medication technician from an AMR ambulance that had arrived but cannot be heard making any mention of the fact that the man they were assisting was not moving.
Finally, a full three minutes after the officers began to press Prude into the asphalt, an ambulance EMT came over and asked the officers to roll Prude onto his back. He later told police investigators this is when he recognized that Prude was not breathing.
The EMT, identified as Brett Barnes, began to administer CPR seconds later as he called his colleague to help. Officers could not immediately find a key to remove the handcuffs, and Prude's hands remained secured behind his back for two minutes while resuscitation efforts continued.
When a police investigator later asked Barnes about the officers' restraint techniques, he told them "nothing looked 'over the top' or malicious in nature" and added that "the officers’ actions appeared appropriate for what Prude was doing, and necessary to keep Prude from running around the entire street."
The pair of emergency responders had intended to inject Prude with a sedative so he could be safely moved to a hospital, the police narrative said. They were present for about two minutes but had not sedated Prude before the medical crisis eliminated their need to do so.
Prude was loaded aboard the ambulance 11 minutes after the first officer arrived, the video showed. His heartbeat was restored during the short ambulance trip to Strong, according to the police narrative, but his brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. He was later declared brain dead and died March 30 after being taken off life support, according to the report.
His liver and one kidney were donated for use in transplants, according to the autopsy report.
After Prude was rushed to the hospital from Jefferson Avenue, one of the officers was dispatched to his brother's home to tell him that Prude had been located.
"We got him. Your brother's at Strong," the officer can be heard to say on the unedited police video. The officer spoke with Joe Prude and members of his family for several minutes but never betrayed the fact that his brother's heart had stopped beating after being aggressively restrained by police.
"So he cooperated?" Joe asked. "Yeah, um ..." the officer answered. He excused himself a moment later to make a phone call.
Traces of PCP found
Toxicology tests done as part of the autopsy found a low level of PCP, also known as angel dust, in his blood. The drug can induce schizophrenia and wildly erratic, violent behavior.
The autopsy report listed "acute phencyclidine intoxication" as a complication of his death. The medical examiner did not say whether the levels of PCP in his blood explained Prude's behavior before and during his detention by city police, and did not make any mention of pre-existing mental health issues that might have come into play.
The autopsy report also listed several health conditions — two different lung diseases, heart inflammation and a brain injury — that were complications of his death.
The report at one point indicated the cause of death was "complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint due to excited delirium due to acute phycyclidine intoxication,” as if one followed on the other.
That is, as if Prude's PCP intoxication caused excited delirium, which prompted the physical restraint that deprived Prude of oxygen and left him brain dead.
The term "excited delirium" and the concept behind it is a controversial one. It is often applied to suspects who aggressively resist police detention efforts. Officers and pathologists frequently assert that the suspects are high on drugs.
Proponents say someone suffering from the syndrome is more likely to die from pre-existing health problems, such as a bad heart.
Both AMR personnel who were on the scene that morning later told the Rochester police investigators that it appeared Prude may have been experiencing excited delirium.
But critics say the term has no formal meaning in medicine, and is used as a way to explain resistant behavior of suspects and to normalize officers' aggressive responses. It is applied most often to young men of color, some have asserted.
In the video of the Prude incident, a paramedic from the ambulance crew, identified in the police report as Julie Purick, speaks to an officer as her colleague tries to revive Prude.
"PCP can cause what we call excited delirium," she said.
"Yeah, I know what excited delirium is," the police officer responds.
"I guarantee you that's how he coded," Purick goes on, using a shorthand expression for the sudden cessation of lung and heart function. "It's not you guys' fault. You've got to keep yourselves safe."
Contact watchdog reporter Steve Orr at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (585) 258-2386. Follow him on Twitter at @SOrr1. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. If you don't already have a digital subscription, please sign up today.
Includes reporting by staff writers Sean Lahman, Gary Craig, Victoria Freile and Will Cleveland.