Rochester city officials, including the former police chief and the mayor, “knowingly suppressed” information from getting to the public, and some officials made “untrue statements” about the events leading to the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man experiencing a mental health episode who was asphyxiated by police while restrained and handcuffed.
An independent report released on Friday chronicles how ex-Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and Mayor Lovely Warren, over the course of more than five months, took deliberate steps to avoid disclosing the disturbing nature of the encounter between Prude and the officers. Their actions, the investigation concluded, were prompted by fears of potential protests and violence amid a national reckoning about the death of unarmed Black people in police custody.
“In the final analysis, the decision not to publicly disclose these facts rested with Mayor Warren, as the elected Mayor of the City of Rochester,” Andrew Celli, who was hired by the City Council, said in the blistering 84-page report.
“But Mayor Warren alone is not responsible for the suppression of the circumstances of the Prude Arrest and Mr. Prude’s death.”
The tragic incident, which was initiated by his family who called police to help them cope with Prude during a psychological and drug-induced episode, occurred on March 23, 2020. He was naked and behaving erratically, according to police reports. That led officers to put the 41-year-old in handcuffs and eventually add a hood over his head to prevent him from spitting on the officers. A medical examiner declared Prude’s death — seven days later in a hospital — a homicide, saying the immediate cause was “asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
But his death didn’t become public until early September when officials fulfilled a public records request for police body camera footage of the arrest that the family had filed months earlier.
The video sparked outrage when it was published by the family, prompting days of protests and calls on the mayor and police chief to resign amid accusations of a cover-up.
Warren later fired Singletary, after a preliminary report by the deputy mayor found serious issues with the response by police and city leaders to Prude’s death. The mayor also suspended the city’s attorney, Tim Curtin, and her communications director, Justin Roj, for 30 days without pay. Warren called for federal investigations and citywide reforms based on the findings and recommendations of the 1o-page report.
Celli subpoenaed internal communications, emails, phone records and text messages. He also deposed Warren, Singletary and other city officials.
Throughout the report, Celli found that Singletary “consistently de-emphasized the role of police restraints in the death of Daniel Prude, and his statements did not capture the disturbing tenor of the entire encounter.”
The chief’s characterization also likely impacted how city officials who were told about the police-custody death viewed what had occurred, according to Celli.
Other city officials also played a role in delaying or attempting to prevent the information from becoming public, at times making serious false statements.
City attorney Curtin, “actively discouraged” the mayor from publicly addressing the arrest after Warren had viewed the body camera footage for the first time, “citing reasons that were factually incorrect, legally without basis, or both,” the report states. During one meeting, the lawyer told Warren that she was prohibited from initiating any disciplinary action against the officer involved in the arrest until an investigation by the Office of the Attorney General had been concluded. Curtin claimed the attorney general’s office “had requested that the City take no action with respect to disciplining the officers” and ordered the city to ” ‘stand down’ and not make any public statements about the Prude matter.”
But the report states: “In fact, the OAG had not instructed the City to ‘stand down’ and not make any public statements about the Prude Matter, and there was no factual basis for Mr. Curtin to have asserted that it had.
Councilmember Mary Lupien was also found to have intentionally kept information from her colleagues. Lupien, who learned of the arrest about two months before the family received the requested documents, elected not to speak publicly or alert other city officials about the matter.
The report also notes intentional efforts by Singletary and other city officials to delay the release of the body camera footage to the Prude family. They included requests for additional release forms that were unnecessary, then delaying the delivery of the form from the city’s lawyers to law enforcement. Another means of holding up the process “is attributable to the Law Department’s effort to accommodate a request by senior officials at the [Rochester Police Department], including Chief Singletary, to withhold the BWC footage for fear that its release might cause civil unrest and violence in the wake of the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.”
Although Warren was made aware by Singletary of Prude’s arrest, that he’d become unconscious during the incident, and suffered life-threatening injuries, the mayor waited more than four months to view the body camera footage.
When she did, Warren “expressed deep shock, anger, and dismay at the conduct of the RPD officers, as shown on the BWC videotape—especially at the conduct of Officer Vaughn in pressing Mr. Prude’s head into the pavement, and at the laughing and cavalier attitude displayed by officers at the scene,” the report says.
Singletary had previously told the mayor that he had reviewed the body camera video and that he saw nothing “egregious” in the officers’ conduct. He stated that officers had held Prude’s head to the ground and applied pressure to his back in order to stabilize him. “Singletary did not describe the officers on scene as joking or ridiculing Mr. Prude.”
In December, the City of Rochester’s Office of Public Integrity released its own report, saying it found “no evidence” that any city employee violated any “policies or ethical standards” in Prude’s death. In February, after a months-long investigation by the New York State Attorney General’s office, a grand jury voted that no charges would be filed against Rochester police officers in connection with Prude’s death.
At the time, State Attorney General Letitia James said, “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.”
The officers involved in the killing remain on suspension. Warren, who was indicted in October on charges of mishandling campaign funds, is seeking a third term as mayor.