Rochester police chiefs urged city officials to endure publicly releasing body camera footage of Daniel Prude’s suffocating death because they feared violent blowbacks if the video came out during nationwide protests over police killings of George Floyd, recently released emails show.
Deputy Chief Mark Simmons quoted the “current climate” in the city and the nation in an June 4 email in which then-advisory chief La’ron Singletary was to pressure the city’s lawyers to deny a Prude family lawyer’s request for public records for recordings from 23 March meeting that led to his death.
The video, finally released by Prude̵
“We certainly do not want people to misinterpret officers’ actions and confuse this incident with any recent killings of unarmed black men of national law enforcement,” Simmons wrote. “It would simply be a false narrative and could create enmity and potentially violent setbacks in this society as a result.”
Western New York City released emails, police reports and other documents Monday as Mayor Lovely Warren fired Singletary and suspended Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin and Communications Director Justin Roj for 30 days amid a continuing fallout from Prude’s death. Simmons was appointed interim police chief.
Simmons’ email, seeking to persuade the city to deny the request for freedom of information, reiterated emails from other police officers who were concerned about releasing video from the March 23 rally as protesters took to the streets of Rochester and elsewhere to protest Floyd’s death on May 25 in Minneapolis and other police killings of black people.
Lieutenant Mike Perkowski told a city attorney on June 4 that he was “very concerned about releasing this prematurely in light of what is going on,” and Captain Frank Umbrino told another police officer, “any release of information must happen in connection with with and coordinated with the mayor and the boss, as it very well has some intense ramifications. ”
Simmons forwarded both emails to Singletary with his message advising the chief to have the Prude family lawyer’s request for public records pushed together, according to the documents released Monday. Simmons suggested the city reject the request because the case was still under investigation by the attorney general’s office.
“I totally agree,” Singletary replied according to emails.
Later on June 4, as the discussion of the request for records continued, City Attorney Stephanie Prince Curtin told of a way to buy more time: to allow the Attorney General’s Office to show the family the video, as it has done in other cases, but not to provide them a copy of it.
“In this way, the city will not release anything related to the case for at least a month (more than 2) and it will not be publicly available,” Prince wrote.
Warren claims she could not see the film camera footage until city attorneys played it for her on August 4, and that Singletary initially misled her about the circumstances of Prude’s death.
After watching the video, Warren sent an e-mail to Singletary stating that she was “outraged” at the behavior of the officer who pressed Prude’s head to the ground, Mark Vaughn, and that he should face an immediate disciplinary investigation.
In an unsolicited draft of this email, Warren Singletary claimed to have “grossly underestimated” Prude’s death by first describing to her an overdose of drugs. In the draft, prepared with the help of Deputy Mayor James Smith, Warren said she strongly believed that Vaughn should be fired and that she would have asked for Vaughn’s termination in March if she had seen the footage at the time. She suspended Vaughn and six other officers last week.
“Honestly, I would have expected the Chief of Police to show me this video in March,” Warren wrote in the draft. The toned-down version sent to Singletary did not include this criticism.
“I should have known. Everyone is right. I should have known,” Warren told WHEC-TV on Tuesday. “But this incident – an unfortunate and tragic situation – had been downplayed from the start as an overdose of PCP.”
A brief management review made by Smith about the city’s handling of Prude’s death showed that “stopping the release of the body camera video due to concerns about optics costs” did “significant damage” to the work the city has done to improve the relationship between the police and the public.
“It’s hard to rationalize how anyone who saw the video of Mr. Prude’s encounter with the RPD did not fully equate these events beyond a few mentions of bad publicity, politics, trial, or a ‘false narrative,’ “Smith wrote.” Rochester has a desperate need for healing. We lost almost six months of the opportunity to start that process. ”
The city council voted Tuesday night to overturn its decision to build a new $ 16 million police station, WHEC-TV reported.
Singletary announced its retirement last week as part of a major shake-up by the city’s police leadership, but had planned to stay on by the end of the month. When he announced his retirement on Sept. 8, the outgoing boss accused critics of trying to “destroy my character and integrity.”
Prude’s death has sparked nearly two weeks of protests at night, urging Warren to resign. His family has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that police tried to cover up the true nature of Prude’s death.