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Rochester police officers won't face charges in Daniel Prude's death

Gary Craig Jon Campbell
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rochester police officers whose physical restraint of Daniel Prude may have caused his death will not face criminal charges, Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday.

Clearly upset at a news conference at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church in Rochester, James said that a grand jury had decided the officers committed no crimes in Prude's death. During her announcement, James placed Prude's death as one flashpoint in a history of racist and deadly intersections with police and Black men and women.

"There needs to be systematic change in the criminal justice system and policing in New York and all throughout this nation," she said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.

"History has unfortunately repeated itself again in the case of Daniel Prude," James said.

"The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold law enforcement officers accountable for the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans. What binds these cases is a tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could have been avoided," James said.

The police union and lawyers for the officers have contended that the officers used approved techniques with the restraint of Prude. While grand jury proceedings are secret, it's likely that the same arguments were made — and apparently done so successfully — to the grand jury.

"We've talked with experts in the use of these defensive tactics and they say this was in compliance," said Matthew Rich, an attorney for the officers.

Federal authorities said Tuesday that they will now investigate the deadly incident. Officers could face federal civil rights violations if federal prosecutors determine they acted criminally.

James said she will push for changes in state law to limit the level of force police can use in incidents that are not life-threatening.

Her office is charged with investigating the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of police.

Response to decision

Stung by the announcement, some local activists said the decision that there was no criminal conduct with Prude's death is proof of the need for an overhaul of policing.

“We need a different system of public safety," said Danielle Ponder, a public defender who has been active with local protests. "The policing system is broken.”

“It’s so sad – but unfortunately – the suffering has become part of our experience in America," she said.

Last year, after the Medical Examiner's Office ruled Prude's death a homicide, the District Attorney's Office forwarded the case to the Attorney General for possible prosecution.

Prude lost oxygen to his brain while being pinned to the ground by police as they waited for a medical transport. 

Lawyers for the police have contended that the restraint used on Prude, with one officer holding his head to the ground and others pinning his lower body, followed the techniques they were taught. It's not known that the officers testified before the grand jury.

Critics of the restraint and local activists say the police did not need to forcefully hold Prude down; he was naked and handcuffed behind his back. 

Prude's death set off nights of protest in Rochester, with activists contending that police should not have been the primary responders to what was a mental health episode.

AG report on death

On March 23, police received a call of a man acting erratic in southwest Rochester and breaking windows. Police found Prude, who had been taken to Strong Memorial Hospital hours earlier but not admitted, wandering the streets naked.

The encounter with police led to his restraint, and he stopped breathing and lost oxygen to his brain. He was revived, but died a week later.

Daniel Prude

James’ report included six recommendations for change in the wake of Prude’s death, including a call to bolster training so law-enforcement officers and EMS workers can better recognize the symptoms of excited delirium, a state of agitation that has been challenged as a medical diagnosis. Medical examiners said Prude was suffering from excited delirium.

An additional opinion was offered in the Attorney General's report by a doctor described as an expert in restraint-related death, Dr. Gary Vilke opined that cardiac arrest that stopped the flow of oxygen may have been the cause of Prude's death, a point that was acknowledged by Dr. Nadia Granger, the Monroe County Medical Examiner who conducted the initial autopsy.

The report also recommended New York mandate de-escalation training for officers and suggested police agencies should explore alternatives to the “spit sock” that appeared to agitate Prude after it was placed over his hood during the event.

Local governments should explore ways to respond to mental-health crisis situations with limited or no police at all, the report concludes. And James recommended a data-driven analysis of “defensive tactics” for police, including the segmenting method — the term for the type of restraint —  used by the Rochester police.

Finally, James’ report recommended the Rochester Police Department adopt a written policy for releasing body-camera footage, noting it was months between Prude’s arrest and when the public ever got to see the video footage.

“It goes without saying that the manner in which the (body worn camera footage) was released in this case created community outrage,” the report reads.

Surprise development

In an unusual development, James said late Tuesday that a judge has ordered the opening of grand jury records, something typically not allowed in New York.

The announcement caught defense attorneys by surprise.

James Nobles, who represents Office Mark Vaughn, said both that the officers have nothing to hide but are also questioning how a judge could make such a decision “without hearing from the targets of this investigation — who have been cleared?” The timing of the decision, seemingly well after 5 p.m., was also curious, Nobles said.

“Courts just reopened this week, and they have this decision?” Nobles asked.

“There were three particular police officers who were targets of this investigation,” Nobles said, questioning how a judge could make the decision without hearing from their attorneys. “I am one. Nobody called me.”

Added defense attorney Rich: “We have proceedings for this, if it is to be considered. … Everybody concerned should be able to take a step back.”

Beyond the grand jury investigation, the fallout with the death of Daniel Prude has been far reaching.

  • Mayor Lovely Warren fired Police Chief La'Ron Singletary, and the leadership of the Police Department was overhauled.
  • City streets for weeks were the site of mass protests, which included instances of property destruction, and City Council launched an investigation into the mayor's handling of the homicide.
  • Warren has maintained that she was kept in the dark about the specifics of the death for months, while others have questioned what she knew and when.
  • Meanwhile, the city has ratcheted up efforts to improve its mental health response to emergency calls about troubled individuals.

Includes reporting by staff writer Brian Sharp.

Contact Gary Craig at gcraig@gannett.com or at 585-258-2479. Follow him on Twitter at gcraig1

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