Over the past few days, revelations have come to light detailing behind-closed-door efforts by Rochester Police Department officials to suppress video footage and reframe the narrative of the incident that led to Chicago resident Daniel Prude’s death by asphyxiation at the hands of officers during his arrest on March 23.
At the center of the controversy is a 323-page report by Deputy Mayor James Smith, which provides damning evidence that the police department did not contact the mayor’s office about Prude’s death and the surrounding circumstances until mid-April.
When police chief La’Ron Singletary did notify Justin Roj, the city’s communications director, via email, he said the medical examiner reported Prude died from PCP intoxication, excited delirium and “resisting arrest” when, in fact, the official findings in the autopsy of his death concluded death from PCP intoxication, excited delirium and “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
At a time when mayors are increasingly under fire for the handling of cases like that of Breonna Taylor, local Black Lives Matter protestors say that mischaracterization and efforts to conceal the truth about Prude’s encounter and death amount to proof of an official cover-up and that Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren should step down.
Mayor Warren has said publicly that Singletary initially told her that Prude died of a drug overdose, and that she had no knowledge of the truth until she saw the police body camera footage in early August. The city’s review fully supports her contention.
The mayor’s reaction to the crisis has been quick and decisive. On Monday, she fired Chief Singletary, two weeks before he was scheduled to take an early retirement, while suspending without pay both the city’s leading attorney Tim Curtin and communications director Justin Roj.
Roj tweeted the following statement after the mayor suspended him on August 14:
My statement regarding Mayor Warren's actions today: pic.twitter.com/0w0QUE1WOi
— Justin Roj (@JustinRoj) September 14, 2020
The mayor has also called for a federal probe of the Daniel Prude matter and she has asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate any potential violations of Prude’s civil rights.
“This tragic loss of life has shown that we have systematic failures,” Warren said. “We have to acknowledge these failures and put in place these forms that create transparency.”
Separately, the Rochester City Council has decided to conduct its own independent investigation of Prude’s death.
Mayor Warren sat down with WROC News 8 Anchor Adam Chodak Wednesday to discuss the situation.
Mayor Warren has apologized to Daniel Prude’s family for the abuses that resulted in his death and for to the public for mistakes made in reviewing the case. She has also called for police reforms.
“This initial look has shown that we have a pervasive problem in the Rochester Police Department, one that views everything through the eyes of the badge and not the citizens we serve,” she said in a statement. “Never again can we allow any man or woman to needlessly die in police custody.”
For months, national attention and protests have been focused on the George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American man, died on May 25 after being handcuffed and pinned to the pavement by his neck under the knee of white police officer Derek Chauvin, who has been charged with second-degree murder and is expected to go to trial next year.
Prude’s death was unknown to the public until his family released body-camera video of the encounter with Rochester police that led to his death during what the family calls a “mental health episode” on March 23.
The footage, which has sparked daily protests in Rochester, showed police officers handcuffing a naked Prude, then placing a spit sock over his face and holding his face onto the ground for more than three minutes. The seven officers involved in his arrest were suspended after the video was made public.
Even in the face of mounting pressure and calls to resign, Mayor Warren has been resolute.
Under the mayor’s leadership, the City of Rochester is creating a new crisis intervention services unit, which will put protocols in place to ensure that same mistakes that claimed the life of Daniel Prude will not happen again. Starting in October, crisis teams with trained clinicians will be on call 24/7 to help manage mental health emergencies.
According to reporting by NPR, people who suffered from a mental illness account for nearly a quarter of all individuals killed by police officers in U.S.
In the aftermath of Daniel Prude’s death, Mayor Warren and the City of Rochester have taken concrete steps for constructive, positive change.
They are not alone.
Local civil rights leader Reverend Lewis Stewart, President of United Christian Leadership Ministries, has called for peace, justice and reflection. He has reached out to BLM leaders in Rochester with the hope of opening a dialogue about new approaches to accomplishing their goals. Stewart has also been in touch with national civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who will be visiting the city next week.
“People are crying out for justice and they’re trying to do everything they can to obtain justice,” Stewart said on Wednesday at a news conference. “But calling out for the resignations of different officials who are elected by the community, like the mayor or like Sandra Doorley is not going to take place. It’s unachievable.”
“Rochester, or as we like to say, Frederick Douglass City, does not have to be a divided city, does not have to be a community without hope.”
That sentiment is what Rochester needs to put the city on a path forward, a path to healing.