For almost six months, the Rochester Police Department and the authorities in Rochester, New York, chose not to release a videotape showing the circumstances surrounding the death of 41-year-old Daniel Prude while being detained and restrained by police.
The encounter and its aftermath escaped public attention until Sept. 2 when Mr. Prude’s family and the family attorney released the videotape along with police reports.
Mr. Prude’s encounter with the police took place at 3 a.m. on the morning of March 23—a full two months before the death of George Floyd while in police custody of the Minneapolis Police Department.
Mr. Prude had just moved to Rochester from Chicago, his brother Joe Prude told the media, and began to experience a mental health crisis so he called 911 for help. Police officers found Daniel Prude walking on the street naked, in temperatures just above freezing. They planned to take him to the hospital, but they put what’s called a spit sock over his head because he was said to be spitting. In an effort to restrain him, one cop placed a knee in his back and another held his head on the ground.
The coroner would later say that the position the officers held Mr. Prude led to asphyxiation and him not getting enough oxygen to his brain. He died in the hospital a week later.
“I placed the phone call for my brother to get help, not to get lynched,” Joe Prude said during a press conference held Sept. 2. “When I say ‘get lynched,’ that was a full-fledged on-going murder, cold-blooded, none other than cold-blooded murder. The man is defenseless, butt-naked on the ground, he’s cuffed up already. I mean, come on. How many more brothers got to die for society to understand that this needs to stop?” he asked.
A wide cross-section of the community are calling what happened to Mr. Prude murder. Release of the videotaped sparked angry protests in front of Rochester Police Department headquarters and the arrests of activists.
Demonstrators again took to the streets Sept. 5 and 6 and marched to the Public Safety Building. The night of Sept. 6 approximately 1,000 protesters came out in what was the fifth day of demonstrations. There were some clashes reported between demonstrators and police, but the protests were largely peaceful.
Late Sept. 3, Mayor Lovely Warren suspended the seven officers involved in the case.
“Mr. Daniel Prude was failed by our police department, our mental health care system, our society and, he was failed by me,” Mayor Warren said, according to published reports. “Daniel Prude’s death has proven yet again that many of the challenges that we faced in the past are the same challenges that we face today.”
Meanwhile, New York State Attorney General Letitia James explained in a statement that her office has been investigating since April. She also offered condolences to Mr. Prude’s family, promising a fair and independent investigation. Attorney General James then announced Sept. 5 she would empanel a grand jury to consider evidence in the death of Mr. Prude.
An autopsy report from the Monroe County medical examiner ruled Mr. Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” Contributing factors were also “excited delirium” and acute intoxication of the drug PCP.
People in the community say the deep anger and frustration felt by Rochester residents is compounded by the inhumane way Mr. Prude was treated; the pervasive and untenable issue of cops killing African Americans; and the stubborn determination by activists and others that they will not stop until state-sanctioned and extra-judicial murders of Black people ends.
Mr. Prude’s death comes as the country is roiled by widespread protests and demonstrations across the U.S., demands for racial justice and equality and calls for accountability and transparency in police departments. This death is also magnified by several recent high-profile cases of fatal and injurious encounters with the police of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in his back and left paralyzed by an officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and Tony McDade.
Rochester native Lentory Johnson and prominent civil and human rights attorney Barbara Arnwine lamented the arbitrary and capricious nature of the officers’ behavior.
“It horrified me. It’s sickening how they try to justify and marginalize us,” said Ms. Johnson, a civic activist and talk show host. “I’m sitting watching the president of police union trying to justify Mr. Prude’s death. I worked at the Rochester Psychological Center. There is no understanding of what they did. They’re so busy trying to keep the status quo. They were not trying to help in that crisis, had no intervention. Where I worked all those years, what happened to Mr. Prude was not uncommon. If we had someone there who could understand, give support, we might still have him here,” she said.
“They had him bare, naked on street, harnessed like a dog,” said Ms. Johnson, whose son Johnny Rae Johnson was killed in a drive-by shooting in 2015. “If he had been able to have coordinated services beside him, he might not have died. He should have been treated like a family member. I don’t believe in the Constitution because it was wasn’t created for us, but everyone should be treated with humanity. I know what it is when people are indifferent to human suffering. There was no humanity offered to this man, no compassion.”
Ms. Arnwine agreed with Ms. Johnson about the need for the availability of mental health services when police officers make wellness calls or mental health checks.
“Fifty percent of all people killed by police have a mental or physical disability. It’s a fact that’s often missed,” said Ms. Arnwine, founder and former president of Transformative Justice Coalition, an internationally recognized organization that works on critical justice issues including the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the 2006 reauthorization of provisions of the Voting Rights Act.
“The stereotype of Black crime and violence plays into how Black people are treated. They’re seen as dangerous. We see this in Black men and women who are clearly experiencing mental crises.”
Ms. Arnwine said Blacks continue to call the police to intervene when someone in the family is experiencing a mental health crisis or emergency but that often comes at a price.
“It was brutality with the way they restrained him. He was tied like an animal and a knee on his back,” she said soberly. “It was cruel and unusual treatment by the police, a failure to accommodate us, treat us like human beings. I’m glad they were suspended. They should also be fired,” she said.
“This is a familiar story and shows the power of video. They tell us one story and we see another. Their training and mentality shows that they are acting from all types of stereotypes. Their mentality is to dominate us, to control and intimidate us. This is the continuing reality of policing in America.”
It’s situations like these, Ms. Arnwine said, that necessitates the defunding of police departments. “Police believe that every problem needs a nail and a hammer. We need to severely defund the police–mental health teams would have worked better,” she said. “I think that this movement demanding seriously restructuring and an end to over-policing is all for the good. It’s us demanding change and getting new people involved. It’s gonna be our demands like in the Civil Rights movement.”
The Rev. Lewis Stewart, III, founder of United Christian Leadership Ministry, said he’s stressed by what has been transpiring in Rochester and other parts of the country but added he’s resolved to keep on trying to make a difference.
“The police-community atmosphere was already set. The police want to talk about accountability and transparency but what they really want is to maintain their self-interests and power,” Rev. Stewart said. “The police and DA are working together, colluding. Cops here lie a lot. They lie all the time. What these cops do up here is turn off their body cams to shield themselves from misconduct. Judges have reprimanded them because they come to court, accuse people and have no footage to back it up.”
Rev. Stewart, who served as a prison chaplain in the New York State correctional system for about 20 years, said he’s also frustrated that Black elected officials haven’t been able to do more to reverse or eliminate the entrenched poverty, reduce crime significantly or enhance residents’ access to decent paying jobs.
“We have a Black police chief, a Black mayor and a majority Black city council but this stuff continues,” he said.
Rev. Stewart, who has developed initiatives including the Coalition for Police Reform, Community Healers Adopt-A-Block initiative, and Partnerships in Excellence, said he remains optimistic that the protests and demands for change in Rochester and the United States will foster needed change.
But it won’t be easy, he said. “I admire the energy and passion of the young people, but you have to work from inside as well.”
Nation of Islam Student Minister Kenneth Muhammad, and activist Anthony Hall, said Rochester’s residents are outraged and angry at the death and cover up of what transpired with Mr. Prude’s death and young people have no time to hear speeches or platitudes and are demanding action.
“The community is glad the officers are suspended but are still outraged that they are still working with pay,” said Min. Muhammad, who has lived most of his life in Rochester. “The police-community relationship is strained. We have the same issues of police brutality despite representatives of the church having discussions with police and other officials. Police unions are a problem. The police union president won’t relent. He refuses to come to speak with the public, churches or pastors and he has exhorted police chief (La’Ron Singletary) to do the same. As the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan said, police unions are basically covering up the actions of those police who are doing wrong.”
Mr. Hall, founder of Free the People ROC, said there has definitely been unrest, but added that the people of the community, especially young people, have been on the frontlines fighting against structural racism and other societal ills.
“This has unified and united this city. We’re demanding that the officers be fired and convicted,” said Mr. Hall, dean of students at Versus Public Charter School. “The community views this death as a homicide. The chief and mayor held information for six months. The reaction to the actual death is heartbreaking,” he said.
“This happened two months before George Floyd’s death. I’m not taking anything away from Floyd’s murder, but this murder was even more inhumane. A mental health call turned into homicide, turned into murder.”