Updated at 6:45 p.m. ET
New York Attorney General Letitia James says a grand jury voted that no charges will be filed against Rochester police officers in connection with the March 2020 death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who was in the midst of a mental health free fall during his encounter with the police.
James initiated an investigation into the fatal encounter between police and Prude, who later died of asphyxiation, after his family uncovered video footage showing officers pinning him to the ground while he was in handcuffs and with a mesh hood over his head.
Police body camera footage of the arrest sparked outrage when it was published in September, prompting days of protests and accusations of a cover-up by city officials.
“We concluded that there was sufficient evidence surrounding Mr. Prude’s death to warrant presenting the case to a grand jury, and we presented the most comprehensive case possible,” James said in a statement announcing the decision — a culmination of a months-long investigation by the attorney general’s office.
James said that the 41-year-old Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis when police were called to the scene and that “what he needed was compassion, care, and help from trained professionals.”
“Tragically, he received none of those things,” she wrote.
James added: “The current laws on deadly force have created a system that utterly and abjectly failed Mr. Prude and so many others before him. Serious reform is needed, not only at the Rochester Police Department, but to our criminal justice system as a whole.”
She urged the public to “respect this decision” despite feelings of injustice or disappointment.
U.S. Justice Department officials released a statement saying, “We intend to review the comprehensive report issued by the New York State Attorney General, as well as any other relevant materials, and will determine whether any further federal response is warranted.”
The Monroe County Office of the Medical Examiner ruled that Prude died from “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint due to excited delirium due to acute phencyclidine intoxication” and listed the cause of death as “homicide.”
Several members of the Rochester Police Department command staff either resigned or were fired in the wake of the incident and ensuing protests, and city officials have pledged reforms. Days after the footage was released, James announced she would put together a grand jury as part of her office’s investigation into Prude’s death.
Attorney Matthew Rich, who is representing four of the officers involved, told NPR member station WXXI in November that James’ office had been presenting to the grand jury since mid-October. He asserted the innocence of all seven officers, including his clients. Of the four he represents, he said, one was not on the scene at all, and none had physical contact with Prude.
Details of Prude’s death emerged at the tail end of a summer marked by protests against racial injustice and police brutality, sparked by the high-profile police killings of Black victims including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
“Daniel was very charismatic,” his brother, Joe Prude, told NPR’s Morning Edition in September. “He was a good dude all the way around. He was down to earth, a good generous man at heart.”
Arrest during an apparent mental health crisis
Rochester police arrested Prude in the early hours of March 23 while responding to a 911 call made by his brother, who was concerned about Prude’s safety during an apparent mental health crisis.
Prude had been released from Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital earlier that evening after expressing suicidal thoughts and had left his brother’s house wearing long johns and a tank top in below-freezing temperatures. Police found him naked and acting irrationally, allegedly smashing storefront windows and ranting about having the coronavirus.
Graphic police body camera footage shows officers confronting Prude with stun guns and ordering him to lie down on the snow-slicked road, then cuffing his hands behind his back when he complied. An increasingly agitated Prude began to yell and spit at officers and attempted to stand up, eventually prompting officers to place a “spit hood” over his head. Officers then restrained Prude by pinning down his head and feet and kneeling on his back.
Prude lost consciousness and stopped breathing, according to police reports. He died a week later after he was taken off life support.
Joe Prude told NPR that he believes the police are to blame for his brother’s death, citing “excessive force.”
“I didn’t call them to come help my brother die,” he said. “I called them to come help me get my brother some help.”
Local backlash after the video’s release
Prude’s family eventually obtained the body camera footage through a public records request, and their attorneys released it to the public in early September.
The backlash brought protesters into the streets demanding justice and transparency, with some calling on the city’s mayor and police chief to resign amid accusations of a cover-up — charges that both denied.
A day after the video’s release, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said she had been told by Police Chief La’Ron Singletary that Prude had overdosed while in police custody and she did not see video of the arrest herself until August.
She told reporters that Prude had been failed “by our police department, our mental health care system, our society … and by me.”
She also said that institutional and structural racism had led to Prude’s death, noting she believed those systems would not have failed him if he had been white.
She later announced that Singletary and the rest of the department’s command staff would resign, saying the 20-year veteran felt that “his career and integrity [have] been challenged.”
But she fired him just days later, after a preliminary report by the deputy mayor found serious issues with the police’s and city leaders’ response to Prude’s death.
Warren also suspended two city officials and called for federal investigations and citywide reforms based on the findings and recommendations of the 1o-page report.
Acknowledging “systematic failures,” she admitted that she and other officials should have been more transparent from the outset.
This month, Singletary testified before Rochester City Council members as part of its own investigation into Prude’s death.
In his deposition, he described his conversations with Warren on March 23 and appeared to contradict her earlier public statements by saying he had “never” characterized Prude’s death as a drug overdose and had notified the mayor only because police officers had been involved.
He also said that upon reviewing the police video in March, he and his command staff did not find anything “outwardly egregious” with the behavior of the officers involved, noting there weren’t “strikes or punches or anything excessive at that particular point in time.”
Singletary said that although a preliminary review of the incident was in progress, no one in the department’s leadership deemed it necessary to take those officers off patrol duty.
Rochester police also drew renewed scrutiny again in recent weeks when body camera video emerged showing officers handcuffing and pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl while responding to a call about a family disturbance. The police officers have since been suspended, pending the conclusion of an internal investigation.
NPR has reported that while Rochester recently launched a “Person in Crisis” program aimed at having mental health professionals respond to mental health calls, the new program was not triggered in this instance because the call came in as a family distress call, not a mental health emergency.