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What's next in embattled Rochester's future?

Questions arise as Daniel Prude investigations pick up steam

Steve Orr, Brian Sharp
Justin Murphy and Gary Craig Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Protesters face off with Rochester police officers in front of City Hall.

ROCHESTER — Fallout from the death of Daniel Prude has filtered into the nooks and crannies of civic life, influencing everything from where people dine out in Rochester to what they talk about over breakfast.

The topics are both trivial and profound. Which streets are closed by protests? Who’s investigating what exactly? Who’s running the police department? How could this have been kept quiet for five months? What really happened at City Hall? Have activists’ demands been met?

It has been three weeks since Prude’s family released the graphic video that depicts 41-year-old Daniel Prude being suffocated early one morning in March during forceful restraint by police officers.

Since then, every day — and sometimes every hour — has brought new developments. Tracking them has become a preoccupation and a challenge. To help with that task, here is the most up-to-date information on where things go from here:

Grand jury to convene

State Attorney General Letitia James has announced that she will convene a grand jury to consider evidence against the officers involved in Prude's death.

Under a state executive order, the Attorney General's Office investigates the fatalities of unarmed individuals at the hands of police. When Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley learned in April that Prude's death had been ruled a homicide, she notified the Attorney General's Office so it could start its investigation.

James did not announce plans for a grand jury until after the public outcry when the videos of Prude's restraint were released in September.

The grand jury will convene in Monroe County, and court officials have taken steps to ensure there will be adequate space to accommodate a socially distanced grand jury.

Three officers involved in the restraint of Prude now have defense lawyers, according to the Rochester Police Locust Club union. Representing Officer Troy Taladay is attorney Daniel Mastrella; representing Officer Mark Vaughn is attorney James Nobles; and representing Officer Francisco Santiago is attorney Michael Schiano.

Attorney Matthew Rich has been retained to assist with the defense team investigation.

Ongoing investigations

The Attorney General's investigation is focusing on the question of whether the officers were criminally culpable in Prude's death. But there is also the question of how and why the city of Rochester kept the facts of the death quiet for so long.

Protesters have called for Mayor Lovely Warren to resign. She has said she did not learn of the facts of the police involvement in the homicide until August; she has refused to resign.

Protesters also have asked for Doorley to resign, claiming there were other cases of police misconduct her office should have prosecuted. Her office did prosecute former Office Michael Sippel, who was convicted last year of misdemeanor assault in the beating of a civilian.

City Council has launched its own investigation into the Warren administration's handling of the Prude death. Many protesters and some elected officials have questioned Warren's claims that she did not know the circumstances of the homicide for months after her law department and communications department became aware.

Warren has suspended the city's lead attorney and communications official.

Arrested protesters in court

In the aftermath of public revelations of the police-related death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protests erupted across the country in May. Like many, the civil unrest in Rochester was largely peaceful, with scattered episodes of vandalism and looting.

Several dozen individuals were criminally charged locally, and a handful also were hit with more severe federal charges. Those cases are still unresolved and winding their way through state and federal courts.

Similarly, there have been arrests with recent protests, and allegations have ranged from disorderly conduct, which is a violation that is not even considered a crime, to federal charges alleging attacks on police officers during "civil unrest."

The coming months should bring resolution to some of the cases, which could raise constitutional issues like whether the protesters had gathered unlawfully or were within their constitutional rights.

Who's in charge? Simmons, for now

When La'Ron Singletary was fired without warning from his job as Rochester's chief of on Monday, Sept. 14, there was no immediate word who would be calling the shots at the Public Safety Building. Several hours later, city officials said that Mark Simmons would step in as interim chief.

Simmons, an 18-year RPD veteran, has a complicated resume. Until a few weeks ago he was the department's deputy chief for administration, a post to which he was appointed by Warren four years ago. But he resigned that job on Sept. 8, the same day that Singletary and four other top RPD officials said they would be leaving the command structure in an apparent coordinated protest.

Simmons returned to his previous assignment as an RPD lieutenant, regaining civil service protection that would make it difficult to fire him. Immediately, Singletary named him acting deputy chief again until the end of the month. And then, last week, he allowed Warren to name him as what amounts to emergency interim chief.

Oddly, he was interim chief once before, from September 2018 through April 2019, when Warren named Singletary to the top job in the department.

Simmons, 40, will serve until Warren hires someone else to be interim chief, who would run the department for a number of months until a permanent chief is found.

The city has initiated searches for both interim and permanent chiefs but announced no progress.

What's next for La'Ron Singletary

Singletary, who not so long ago was on top of the world as chief of his hometown police department, vacated his office on Monday, Sept. 14, when Warren alerted him through Twitter that she was letting him go.

Warren attributed his removal to a scathing review by Deputy Mayor James Smith that found fault with the department’s handling of the Prude case and concluded that major police reform was needed.

Singletary was already on his way out the door when Warren fired him: He had announced a week earlier, also without warning, that he was resigning effective Sept. 29. He said then that his reputation was being threatened by unfounded accusations from "outside entities."

Singletary, a Rochester native, spent his entire career with RPD. Warren named him chief just 17 months before she let him go.

Though only 40 years old, Singletary characterized his resignation as a retirement, because in July he reached his 20-year anniversary as a full-time RPD employee and qualified for a full pension. This termination will not affect his pension, which by law remains intact unless he were to be convicted of a work-related felony.

Singletary has said little in public since Prude’s death went public and has said nothing about what he might want to do next. As of Sept. 22, his LinkedIn page still listed him as Rochester’s chief.

City Council's investigation

City Council has appointed New York City-based lawyer Andrew Celli Jr. as an independent investigator to assess the city's handling of the case to date. Celli, working with former city Corporation Counsel Linda Kingsley, is to develop a timeline and ferret out who knew what, when, and what they communicated publicly and privately.

The first subpoenas went out Monday, Sept. 21, to the mayor’s office, Rochester Police Department, the city's law department and to City Council itself. The parties have until Oct. 2 to produce relevant emails, texts, social media messages and other communications. Celli has promised to deliver a conclusive report within three months.

City Hall suspensions

Mayor Warren suspended city Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin and communications director Justin Roj on Sept. 14, the same day she dismissed Singletary.

The unpaid suspensions are to run 30 days.

Warren based her decision on a cursory review of matters by Deputy Mayor James Smith that found Curtin and Roj missed opportunities to dig deeper to find out what happened to Prude, or to at least directly raise the issue with the mayor.

Curtin sat alongside Warren in a City Council briefing immediately before she publicly announced his suspension. He has not spoken publicly.

Roj released a statement that day accepting the discipline, while going on to say he was not aware of the details surrounding Prude’s death, and urging reform.

Smith since has said additional city employees could face discipline in the matter. There has been no further comment by nor concerning Curtin or Roj.

Lovely Warren's future

Of everyone involved in the Prude case, the mayor faces perhaps the most uncertain future.

Her account of what she knew, and when she knew it, has some obvious gaps, and both Singletary and Scott have proven willing to push back on it. She is sure to face close questioning from the various investigators, including Celli on behalf of City Council.

Protesters continue to call daily for Warren's resignation. She has resisted, but the results of the investigations, as well as the announcement of any criminal charges, could prove to be an inflection point.

In addition to the serious political threat the Prude case presents for Warren, a grand jury is now hearing evidence related to alleged campaign finance violations in her successful 2017 re-election campaign. Warren has vociferously denied any wrongdoing, but an indictment would only erode her support further.

Lastly, the mayor's seat is on the ballot in 2021.

Several potential Democratic challengers are working quietly to gather support for a run; the primary is sure to be hotly contested — whether Warren is on the ballot or not.

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