Daniel Prude’s Death Leads to No Charges for Police


On a snowy night last March, Daniel Prude sprinted shirtless out of his brother’s home in Rochester, N.Y., seemingly in the grip of a psychotic episode. Distraught, his brother called police for help.

Instead, the officers handcuffed Mr. Prude, placed a mesh hood over his head and pressed him into the pavement until he lost consciousness. His death — as well as what emerged as an apparent cover-up of the circumstances around it — further inflamed a national reckoning around racism and brutality in policing. Protests broke out nationwide.

On Tuesday, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, announced that none of the officers who arrested Mr. Prude would face charges in connection with his death. A grand jury convened by Ms. James to investigate the case declined to charge any of the seven officers on the scene that night with a crime.

Ms. James was blunt in admitting she had hoped for a different outcome.

“The criminal justice system has demonstrated an unwillingness to hold law enforcement officers accountable in the unjustified killing of unarmed African-Americans,” Ms. James said, her voice growing emotional at a news conference at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church in Rochester. “What binds these cases is the tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could be avoided.”

Ms. James said she planned to meet immediately with the Prude family, as well as the family of a 9-year-old Black girl who was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police in the back of a police car in Rochester last month.

In an unusual move, a Monroe County Court judge, Karen Bailey Turner, on Tuesday evening granted the attorney general’s request to release minutes related to the grand jury’s investigation, records that are generally protected under seal. “The public deserves to know what transpires behind closed doors,” Ms. James said. The date to make the documents public has not been set.

The federal Justice Department also said it would review the case, raising the possibility that it could open a civil rights investigation into the officers who restrained Mr. Prude, something it has done in other high-profile killings of Black people in police custody.

At the same time, Rochester braced for the possibility of protests over the grand jury decision. As word spread that an announcement in the case was imminent, concrete barriers were placed around the city’s public safety building. By Tuesday evening, a crowd had begun to gather on the street near Jefferson Terrace Park, west of downtown Rochester.

After body-camera video of Mr. Prude’s death became public in the fall, his name joined a now-familiar list of Black people killed during interactions with the police, including George Floyd, whose death in Minneapolis led to months of demonstrations nationwide. Particularly unsettling in the case of Mr. Prude were images of him in a hood, reminiscent of the ones used in lynchings of Black people. The officers had placed what they said was a protective covering over his head after he spit at them.

Ms. James said she was “extremely disappointed” that there would be no charges for the seven members of the Police Department involved: Officers Josiah Harris, Francisco Santiago, Paul Ricotta, Andrew Specksgoor, Mark Vaughn and Troy Taladay and Sgt. Michael Magri. The officers remain on leave, and an internal department investigation is ongoing.

The Rochester Police Locust Club, the union that represents the city’s 700 law enforcement officers, declined to comment on the grand jury’s decision.

Criminal charges against police officers involved in similar cases around the country have been rare, stoking calls for greater accountability. Though there have been notable exceptions — four Minneapolis officers were fired and charged criminally in the death of Mr. Floyd — grand juries have historically declined to indict police after deadly interactions with Black people.

Ms. James noted Tuesday that legal standards can make prosecuting police officers particularly challenging. “The system too often allows officers to use deadly force unnecessarily and without consequence,” Ms. James said.

She called for sweeping reforms in how the police interact with and are trained to deal with people in emotional distress and released a report that offered a minute-by-minute narrative of Mr. Prude’s last hours but did not draw any conclusions about possible crimes that the police might have committed.

Mr. Prude, 41, lived in Chicago but had been visiting his brother in Rochester. Friends said that before his death, Mr. Prude had begun to rely more heavily on the drug PCP, also known as angel dust, which can cause erratic behavior. He began to use drugs, they said, to cope with the 2018 death by suicide of his nephew, with whom he had lived.

The day before the episode, his brother, Joe Prude, had him hospitalized at Strong Memorial Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, but he was sent home hours later.

“The system failed Daniel Prude. It failed him when he was released from the hospital, it failed him when the police responded and used deadly force against him and it failed him again today,” Elliot Shields, a lawyer for Joe Prude, said on Tuesday.

Just hours after returning from the hospital, on March 23, Mr. Prude suddenly burst from his brother’s home and ran into the night. Fearful for his safety, his brother called 911, worried Mr. Prude might inadvertently harm himself or run across nearby train tracks.

Police who answered the call found Mr. Prude naked and reported that he had told at least one passer-by that he had the coronavirus. When they apprehended him, he began spitting, and the officers responded by pulling the mesh hood over his head.

When he tried to rise, the officers forced Mr. Prude facedown on the ground, one of them pushing his head to the pavement, police body-camera footage showed. The police held Mr. Prude down for two minutes, and he had to be resuscitated. He died in the hospital a week later, on March 30.

Credit…Prude Family Photo

But the circumstances of Mr. Prude’s death did not become public until September, and only after lawyers for his family pushed for the release of body-camera footage.

“I placed a phone call to get my brother help,” Joe Prude told reporters shortly after the footage of his brother’s ordeal was released, “not to have my brother lynched.”

News of the killing set off protests across Rochester, a city just south of Lake Ontario. At points, police officers in riot gear fired chemical irritants at the demonstrators, including those who remained peaceful.

Records released in an internal review of Mr. Prude’s death conducted in September appeared to show that Rochester officials had tried for months to suppress video footage of the encounter and had misrepresented the cause of his death.

“We certainly do not want people to misinterpret the officers’ actions and conflate this incident with any recent killings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement nationally,” a deputy Rochester police chief wrote in a June 4 email to his supervisor, advising him not to release the footage to the Prude family’s lawyer. “That would simply be a false narrative, and could create animosity and potentially violent blowback in this community as a result.”

The police chief replied minutes later: “I totally agree.”

For months, Mr. Prude’s death had been presented in police accounts as a fatal drug interaction: The police said Mr. Prude had overdosed on PCP. But the medical examiner in Monroe County had ruled Mr. Prude’s death a homicide, caused at least in part by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,” according to the autopsy report.

Revelations over the apparent cover-up upended the city’s political order. Mayor Lovely Warren, who had already suspended the seven officers, fired the police chief and suspended several city staff members shortly after the revelations.

But late last year, the city’s Office of Public Integrity, which Ms. Warren had charged with investigating the incident as well as any possible misconduct by her office, concluded no wrongdoing had been committed by any city employee. The 48-page report stated that no one involved in the incident “violated city or departmental policies or ethical standards.”

Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, the city’s interim chief of police, said Tuesday that she understood “the community’s collective pain at this moment.” She urged any demonstrators to be peaceful.

This month, Ms. Warren submitted a draft proposal for sweeping changes to the police force, following an executive order by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in response to the death of Mr. Floyd that requires communities across the state to investigate ways to reimagine policing.

Ms. James’s investigation was made possible by a 2015 executive order that empowered the attorney general to investigate and prosecute police officers when an unarmed civilian is killed. Mr. Cuomo signed the order after a grand jury declined to indict the New York City police officer who had held Eric Garner, a Black man from Staten Island, in a chokehold until he died.

“Daniel Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis, and what he needed was compassion, care and help from trained professionals,” Ms. James said. “Tragically, he received none of those things.”

Dan Higgins contributed reporting from Rochester, and Troy Closson from New York.

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