Adrian Kraus / AP
The mayor of Rochester, NY, announced disciplinary action and promised reforms Monday after a preliminary internal report found significant problems with senior police and city officials’ response to Daniel Prude’s suffocating death in March.
Mayor Lovely Warren said she had fired Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary less than a week after he announced his resignation and two weeks before he was due to resign. She also suspended her communications director, Justin Roj, and the city’s attorney, Tim Curtin, for 30 days without pay. The Rochester Police Department did not respond to NPR’s request for comment.
City officials later confirmed Deputy Chief Mark Simmons will serve as acting police chief for 30 days. Simmons is one of four police officers either retiring or being demoted in the wake of Prude’s death, and the department said last week that he would return to his previously occupied rank of lieutenant.
Warren also called for a series of federal investigations and city-wide reforms after Prude’s death, sparking protests and accusations of a covert after police body camera footage of his arrest was released earlier this month. Some protesters are demanding that Warren resign.
At a news conference Monday, Warren admitted that she and other officials should have been more transparent with the public from the start, citing “systematic failures” to be acknowledged and reformed.
These are among the results of a 10-page preliminary report prepared by Deputy Mayor James Smith, accompanied by a timeline and many internal documents, all of which are publicly available.
“This initial look has shown what so many suspect we have a pervasive problem in the Rochester Police Department, one that sees everything through the eyes of badges and not the citizens we serve,” Warren said. “It shows that Mr. Prude’s death was not taken as seriously as it should have been by those who reviewed the case throughout the city council at all levels.”
Warren said she will move forward with the eight recommendations from the review.
These include asking the “U.S. Attorney General’s Office to investigate possible violations of Mr. Prude’s civil rights and bring appropriate charges, if warranted,” and request a “thorough review” of the city’s Department of Justice by the U.S. Department of Justice, including all its footage of body cameras from the arrest of power over the last three years.
Warren also instructs the city’s Office of Public Integrity to investigate whether any employees – themselves included – violated city or departmental policies and ethical standards and to prosecute cases as justified.
“I apologize to the Prude family and this community for the mistakes that were made along the way, including my own,” Warren said in a statement. “As mayor, I own these failures. And as mayor, once I am identified, I will do everything I can to resolve them.”
The deputy mayor wrote in a summary of his report that he was instructed to begin the process of determining “who knew what and when” between the incident on March 23 and the beginning of September.
“The words ‘murder’ and ‘in custody’ death should have stopped anyone who heard them in their tracks and asked for an immediate search for more information,” Smith wrote. “It did not happen and it raises the question ‘why’ if there is hope to ensure that it NEVER happens again.”
Criticism of training, process and response
Smith outlined his findings in seven categories, ranging from “Questions for Coaching and Career Guidance” to “RPD does not immediately recognize the significance of Mr. Prude’s death or seeks outside guidance” to “Failure to Recognize National Events.” These form the basis of his eight recommendations.
Based on a review of internal emails and other digital records, Smith accused the police department of abusing Prude’s arrest of mental hygiene and the incidents that followed, raising questions about its reporting of other arrests in which officers used force.
Smith concluded that police and city officials lacked standard practice, professional standards, and, referring to the original arrest, “simple notions of human decency and dignity.”
The records revealed a “culture of isolation, acceptance and, frankly, rudeness” by the police, Smith concluded.
He cited the attitudes of officers involved in the arrest, to investigators who determined their actions were justified, to the departmental management, who went on to describe Prude’s death as a result of “overdose and resistance to arrest”, even after it officially a murder was decided.
Smith also said police leadership had not properly revealed the purpose of Prude’s death to the mayor’s office and did not seek guidance outside the department, despite early suggestions from subordinates to notify the mayor.
Communications Director Roj said in a statement Monday that he was not aware of what had happened to Prude until August 4, at which point he “immediately expressed my opinion in City Hall that the officers involved should no longer be on our streets. Roj added that in retrospect he should have questioned the police chief, who informed him of Prude’s “death in custody” and the murder conviction via email on April 10, or discussed Singletary’s email with the mayor.
Smith also said the city’s handling of the Prude family’s archive request “seemed disorganized,” noting that while the original request was filed on April 3, the camera footage was not delivered until August 12.
He noted that in June, the police leadership raised concerns about fulfilling the registration request while the criminal investigation was underway, and that city attorney Curtin was trying to determine whether municipal attorneys could reject or postpone their request.
Because the investigation into Prude’s death was conducted by the New York State Attorney General’s office instead of the local district attorney, Smith said, city officials involved could have been confused about what rules to follow.
As a result, his recommendations to the city include seeking formal clarification on the release of public information during criminal investigations conducted by the state’s attorney general and the adoption of a “quick and quick policy” that all investigations of RPD officers are immediately communicated to the public.
Warren did not take questions at Monday’s press conference and said she wants the media and the public to have time to review the lengthy documents that have just been released. She promised to “regroup” in a few days and answer questions accordingly.