ROCHESTER, NY – It was early June, days after George Floyd’s death, and cities around the country erupted in protests against police brutality.
In Rochester, the streets were relatively quiet, but behind closed doors, police and city officials became concerned. A black man, Daniel Prude, died of suffocation in March after police officers placed his head in a hood and pinned him to the ground. The public had never been told about the death, but that would change if film camera footage from the meeting came out.
“We certainly do not want people to misinterpret the actions of the officers and gather this incident with any recent killings of unarmed black men of law enforcement nationally,”
His advice was clear: Do not drop the film camera footage of the Prude family’s lawyer. The police chief replied minutes later: “I completely agree.”
The June 4 exchange was contained in a bunch of city documents released Monday showing how the police chief, La’Ron Singletary and other prominent Rochester officials did everything in their power to keep the worrying videos of the incident out of the public eye, and to prevent harmful fallout from Mr. Prude’s death.
The dozens of emails, police reports and internal reviews reveal a range of delaying tactics – from citing hospital privacy laws to blaming an overworked employee’s backlog in video processing – used in this mission.
The documents show how the police tried to frame the story in the earliest hours, playing Mr. Prude’s potential for danger and glowed over the tactics of the officers who pinned him, naked and hooded, to the ground before he stopped breathing.
In a police report on the confrontation marking a box for “victim type”, an officer on the scene stated Mr. Prude – who police believed had broken a window that night – simply as an “individual”. But another officer circled the word in red and scratched a note.
“Make him a suspect,” it reads.
Mr. Prude’s death has sparked daily protests in Rochester as well as accusations of a hideout from his family. Earlier this month, the city’s mayor, Lovely Warren, suspended seven officers involved in the meeting.
The documents were contained in a 323-page internal review of Mr. Prude’s death and the city’s actions in the ensuing months. She cited the report, which she published Monday, in her decision to fire Mr. Singletary two weeks before he was to resign.
Mr. Prude was found by police around noon. 3 on March 23 and balded naked on the street and told at least one witness that he had coronavirus. Prude had just arrived at his brother’s home in Rochester and was apparently under the influence of the PCP, his brother had told police.
Officers handcuffed him, but when Mr. Prude ignored orders to stop spitting, they placed a hood over his head. He was agitated, and three officers fastened him, one leaning heavily on Mr. Prude’s head. Mr. Prude’s prayers shifted to gurgling sounds and he stopped breathing. He was removed from life support a week later.
In their incident reports, officers described the meeting with Mr. Prude as peaceful until he started spitting and demanding a gun. After officers detained him, “he threw up and then did not respond,” a police lieutenant wrote in an email four hours later.
A preliminary review of the incident featured Officer Mark Vaughn, who detained Mr. Prudes head “using a segmentation technique” until he “seems to ease the pressure to the area.”
In fact, Officer Vaughn relied heavily on Mr. Prude’s head in a push-up position that lasted at least 68 seconds shows a New York Times analysis of the camera footage. He gave in after Mr. Prude seemed to have lost consciousness. Police officials will later say Prude suffered an overdose of drugs.
Mr. Prude’s brother, Joe Prude, and other family members immediately doubted he died of an overdose. They contacted a lawyer, Elliot Shields, who filed a legal notice on April 3, forcing the city to preserve evidence from the meeting, a precursor to a trial for wrongful death.
He also filed a claim under the State Freedom of Information Law that all documents and videos concerning Mr. Prude’s arrest was handed over.
On April 10, the county medical exam results released, with Prude dying, a homicide due to suffocation, and noting PCP in his system. Chief Singletary wrote a summary of the incident (“Officers stabilized the individual on the ground”) to Justin Roj, the city’s communications director.
“The mayor has been in the loop,” the boss wrote at the time.
Mayor Warren has said she was not told about the fight with officers that preceded Prude’s cardiac arrest – only that he had suffered an overdose of drugs.
On April 21, the Attorney General’s Office had notified local officials that it was opening an investigation into the death.
Days later, Rochester police completed their own investigation: “The officers’ actions and behavior shown when dealing with Prude appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training,” an internal report said.
In late May, Mr. Shields, Prudes’ lawyer, to follow up on his request for open records and said the deadline for handing over the materials had expired.
But Rochester officials were increasingly reluctant to hand them over. Mr. Floyd died on Memorial Day, and scenes of unrest spread across the country.
Mark Simmons, the deputy chief, shared his concern about “blowback” from the public. He was not alone.
“I’m very concerned about releasing this prematurely in light of what’s going on in Rochester and around the country,” police lieutenant Michael E. Perkowski wrote in an email to Stephanie A. Prince, a city attorney. “I may be thinking about it, but I think the boss’s office and the mayor’s office will have a heads-up before this goes out.”
The officials who wanted to keep the videos away from the public seemed to find a practical, if unlikely, means of doing so: the Attorney General’s investigation. Sir. Simmons, Mrs. Prince, and others repeatedly suggested that the city not hand over records to Mr. Prude’s family because the case was under investigation, a general exception to the open journal laws.
Sir. In his email to the chief, Simmons rejected the request for records “based on the fact that the case is still active as it is currently being investigated for possible criminal charges filed by the AG’s office.”
Mrs Prince raised a similar strategy: the city could halt the general release of videos by letting a lawyer for the Prude family see them at a meeting with the Attorney General’s Office, but not be allowed to keep his own copies. She told others in an email on June 4 that this idea came from Jennifer Sommers, a state assistant lawyer.
“What her office typically does, and what she proposes in this case,” Mrs Prince wrote, is to invite a lawyer for the Prude family to see the case file in person, “provided he agrees to sign an agreement which he cannot scan / copy / otherwise attempt to reproduce the information. In this way, AG makes the case available to the family lawyer, but we do not release anything to the public. ”
She repeated the idea the following day: “In this way, the city will not release anything regarding the case for at least a month (more than 2), and it will not be publicly available.”
The Attorney General’s Office has denied having played any role in the release of the videos. “The Prude family and the larger Rochester community deserve answers, and we will continue to work around the clock to provide for them,” State Attorney Letitia James said in a statement.
A meeting with the lawyer took place in June, and another with Mr. Shields and members of the Prude family took place in July. But Mr. Shields was relentless in his demands to get the videos. The city pushed back, citing the sensitivity of the images of Mr. Prude’s naked body, his private life as a patient who received medical attention and at the end of July the “huge backlog of work” for the lone employee reviewing body camera videos to release.
Copies of the videos were finally released to Mr. Shields on August 12, more than four months after he requested them. The videos were sent via the US Postal Service.
He released them to the public on September 2nd. The response was as officials had feared and filled blocks in downtown Rochester with protesters every night since.
Mr. Simmons, the deputy chief who called for the videos not to be released, was demoted to a lieutenant last week. The demolition did not last long: on Monday, he was appointed acting police chief.