The testimony of former Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary in City Council’s ongoing probe of the Warren administration’s handling of the Daniel Prude case potentially sheds light on one of the administration’s darker corners. But for now, it stands alone—Singletary is the only one of a number of witnesses to testify publicly.
Singletary spoke under oath in a more than nine-hour session Feb. 5, answering questions put to him by Andrew Celli, a partner of Emery, Celli, Brinkerhoff, Abady, Ward & Maazel LLP. Celli is the New York City attorney Council hired to investigate the incident.
Singletary testified that he did not hesitate to bring Mayor Lovely Warren into the loop on the Prude case. He further said he fully briefed her and could not understand why she threw “me under the bus” after public disclosure of Prude’s death sparked outrage and demonstrations.
The former police chief testified in public at his own insistence. Celli must weigh Singletary’s words against what others have said. For the public—not privy to depositions Celli took before Singletary, the last to testify in the probe—the picture others have painted of their role or Singletary’s in the tumultuous Prude affair is a matter of conjecture.
Prude died in March, a week after being taken into police custody and ending up unconscious at Strong Memorial Hospital. The Monroe County medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but the incident did not become public until a September news conference held by Prude’s family shined a light on it. The family has since signaled its intention to sue the city in multimillion-dollar wrongful death action.
A Chicago resident who was visiting Rochester relatives, Prude was allegedly under the influence of PCP, a powerful hallucinogen known as angel dust, when his family called 911 for assistance on Mar. 22. Police arrested Prude, took him to Strong Memorial Hospital, which released him. In the early morning hours of Mar. 23, relatives again called police when Prude ran out of the house.
Police found Prude naked and irrational on Genesee Street. Three officers subdued him by holding a knee to his back, putting his head in a so-called spit sock and holding down his head. Prude lost consciousness, was revived and again taken to Strong, where he died a week later.
After the incident
A tragedy for Prude and his family, Prude’s death at the hands of RPD officers became the object of a pitched war of words between Singletary and Mayor Lovely Warren, whose competing versions of events have become as much the subject of Council’s investigation as the death itself.
The Prude family’s news conference sparked demonstrations and calls for Warren to step down. Warren refused to resign, insisting that she had done no wrong. Still under fire, she plans to run for another term in November. She recently secured status as the local Democratic Party’s designated mayoral candidate. Council member Malik Evans, also a Democrat, had earlier announced plans to run against Warren in a primary but said he would not seek the party’s nod.
In deposing Singletary, Celli asked the ex-chief whether he had considered a mayoral run. Had not Singletary in fact raised the possibility to Warren in Sept. 7 meeting?
People had approached him, urging him to run, but he had always responded that he would not consider such a run unless Warren decided to vacate the office, the former police chief replied. He had told the mayor as much in September, Singletary said. Their discussion had no bearing on the Prude case, he added.
On Sept. 14, Warren fired Singletary, dispatching the police chief with a terse letter stating that his services would no longer be required.
Singletary did not take his dismissal well. The ax fell two weeks before the Sept. 29 date on which Singletary had previously announced he would voluntarily step down. The dismissal deprived him of lifetime health benefits he otherwise would have been eligible to receive.
In a notice of claim signaling his intention to sue Warren and the city for wrongful dismissal, Singletary asserts that Warren fired him because he resisted her pleas to falsely back her claim that he had kept her in the dark on details of the Prude case for some four months. He would not cooperate with Warren’s attempt to “throw me under the bus,” he states in the court filing.
Last Friday, Singletary liberally sprinkled the under-the-bus accusation through much of his testimony in the deposition, blaming Deputy Mayor James Smith and Communications Director Justin Roj for influencing Warren to make him into a scapegoat after Prude’s arrest and death became a flashpoint for Black Lives Matters and other social justice protestors.
Council’s investigation of the matter follows a probe by the city’s Office of Public Integrity, which concluded that no city employee committed ethical breaches or violated policy. Warren’s critics were not impressed and have continued to call for her resignation. Council member Mary Lupien was among critics who found the city OPI investigation’s limited scope wanting. She called its conclusions “an insult to the Prude family.”
Singletary at first declined to be questioned in the Council probe and acceded to a summons only on the condition that his deposition be public.
In testimony at the deposition, Singletary bristled at Celli’s characterization of his reluctance to testify as a refusal. He and his attorneys sought a judicial ruling before agreeing to comply with the Council committee’s subpoena as a point of clarification but had never refused to comply, Singletary insisted.
Warren has claimed in news conferences and interviews that Singletary hid details from her, portraying the cause of Prude’s death as an overdose and not being forthcoming on officers’ restraint of Prude. Singletary denies those assertions. Warren maintains she did not know that Prude’s death was ruled a homicide until August. Singletary says that wasn’t the case.
Some questions Celli posed to Singletary seemed aimed at getting to a query the lawyer posed to Singletary near the marathon session’s end: Did Singletary believe it was possible that by virtue of their different backgrounds, he and Warren simply had different views of the Prude affair?
No, responded Singletary. He does not believe that to be the case. Warren fired him to draw attention away from herself and to counter the “optics” of his decision to walk away from the controversy, the former police chief maintains.
In the deposition, Singletary testified that he first discussed Prude’s arrest with Warren in two Mar. 23 phone calls on the morning of Prude’s arrest. Prude at the time was hospitalized but still alive. Singletary said he decided to immediately bring the mayor into the loop because RPD officers had physically restrained Prude and though he was still alive, “his prognosis was not good.”
In both calls, the former chief said, he told the mayor that officers had physically restrained Prude using so-called stabilization techniques, a term that Singletary told Celli means that police were holding Prude to the ground. In the second call, which lasted approximately 45 minutes, Singletary said he went into greater detail because between the two calls he had viewed the body-worn camera video of the incident and had seen reports by command staff officers describing the incident in detail.
Celli asked Singletary if he had told the mayor that the officers had used so-called segmenting techniques or that one had pressed down on Prude’s neck, applying a “hypoglossal pressure point.”
Segmenting means holding a suspect’s head to the ground. Singletary testified that the technique had only recently been introduced to the RPD, in January training sessions. Both techniques might be seen as contributing or leading to asphyxiation, the cause of death cited by the medical examiner who ruled Prude’s death a homicide.
Singletary said he avoided using the term segmentation because it was technical “cop language” that, he thought, a civilian like the mayor would not understand. He also said that he had not mentioned the application of a hypoglossal pressure point for the same reason. He did tell Warren that an officer had “pinned Mr. Prude’s head to the pavement.”
In later questioning, Celli similarly asked Singletary to confirm that in written communications at a later date with Roj, the city’s communications director, he had also omitted references to segmentation and hypoglossal segmentation. Singletary said that he had not mentioned those techniques.
Celli also noted that Singletary had consistently referenced Prude being under the influence of PCP and asked whether Singletary had characterized Prude’s death as a drug overdose, a possible reference to Warren’s claim that she had been misled on that point.
Singletary denied that he had ever said Prude died of a drug overdose or implied that drugs had been a contributing factor to his death.
“You did not provide in the March 2020 period a detailed or even remotely detailed description of the mental health arrest of Mr. Prude in writing either by text or by email to Mayor Warren,” Celli noted.
Responded Singletary: “The mayor and I had conversations on this and based on my discussions with her, I fully briefed her on the incident. If she had questions on it, she would have followed up.”
“Fair enough,” said Celli. “But why didn’t you provide a written description of what had occurred so that there would be a record of what you told the mayor about the Prude mental health request?”
Singletary’s reply: “There was no record ever requested by the mayor. There was the phone conversations that her and I had about this incident. If there was something that needed to be clarified or followed up or if the mayor wanted a report, she would have directed me to do so.”
Hours later, as his questioning of Singletary drew to a close, Celli asked whether Singletary now regrets not putting more in writing.
“Now that I know what I know, I wish I had documented it,” Singletary said.
At the incident’s outset, Singletary testified, he saw nothing untoward in officers’ treatment of Prude because “there were no punches or strikes” by police. Nevertheless, he ordered an internal review of the incident and a criminal review by the RPD’s major crimes unit.
Still, even in testimony he gave last week, Singletary seemed disinclined to describe the RPD officers’ conduct in terms as harsh as some, including Warren, painted the encounter.
He was not unsympathetic or unfeeling about Prude’s treatment or his fate, but as a police officer he was required to stick to the facts and maintain objectivity, Singletary explained at one point in his testimony.
In addition to internal reviews, Singletary testified, he had also referred the matter to Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley. The New York attorney general’s office later intervened, taking over from Doorley.
At one point in the deposition, Celli read a memo written RPD Deputy Chief Mark Simmons in which Simmons argued against releasing body-worn camera footage in response to a freedom of information request submitted by Prude’s relatives, who had earlier indicated their intention to file a wrongful death suit seeking tens of millions of dollars.
In the memo, Simmons speculated that release of the footage might spark demonstrations similar to protests that swept through U.S. cities including Rochester and reverberated around the world following the May death of George Floyd. Singletary’s testimony makes it clear that such demonstrations were something he wanted to avoid.
In an incident that many would see as eerily echoed in Rochester as details of the Prude arrest surfaced, Floyd succumbed after a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. That action came during what otherwise might have been a routine investigation of a store clerk’s claim that Floyd had passed a counterfeit bill.
Asked by Celli whether he agreed with his command staff’s analysis, Singletary noted that he had not written the memo. He said that he believed body-worn camera footage of Prude’s arrest should not be released while the attorney general’s investigation of the incident was ongoing but also offered that he did not see the Prude and Floyd incidents as comparable.
“Why not?” Celli wondered.
“In Minneapolis, Minnesota,” Singletary said, “there was an officer who had kneeled on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. This was a different incident that occurred in Rochester, New York.”
Neither the mayor nor any City Hall official asked for Warren to see video shot by the arresting officers’ body-worn cameras and he did not suggest that she view it, the former chief told Celli. After the Prude family filed a notice of claim, the video was provided to the city’s corporation counsel and viewed by Warren, who in an Aug. 6 meeting with Singletary and other officials expressed outrage at the RPD officers’ conduct. In an email sent later that day, she berated Singletary for not pursuing disciplinary action against Mark Vaughn, the officer who had performed the segmenting maneuver on Prude.
“I am outraged at the conduct and attitude of officer Vaughn during this mental hygiene arrest. His demeanor and his disregard for a citizen in distress cannot be explained. The joking, antagonizing and laughing was outrageous,” the mayor wrote.
Singletary responded with a detailed account of his department’s actions since the Mar. 23 Prude arrest.
The RPD was indeed pursuing investigations of Vaughn and other officers, but he had miscommunicated the RPD’s review process to Warren, Singletary told Celli. Officers could not be interviewed until RPD completed initial reviews of the process, but that did not mean disciplinary reviews were not being conducted.
In September, as demonstrators were marching on City Hall and the Public Safety Building, calling on her to resign, Warren told reporters in interviews and in statements at news conferences that she had not been made aware of the details of RPD officers’ handling of Prude before Aug. 4, when she viewed body-worn camera footage of the incident. She also criticized Singletary for not immediately taking officers involved in Prude’s arrest off street duty and for failing to immediately launch an internal RPD probe of their conduct.
Singletary testified that his command staff “unanimously” advised that the three officers involved in the Prude incident should not be taken off street duty immediately. They were removed, however, after Prude’s Mar. 31 death.
In addition to the March phone calls, Singletary testified that he further briefed the mayor in two phone calls in April and he also described the incident in a conversation at City Hall in the same month. In his proof of claim, Singletary described the City Hall conversation as witnessed by his chief of staff. In testimony, he conceded that the witness had stood too far away to hear what was said.
According to Singletary, unbeknownst to the RPD, the city released the body-worn camera footage to the Prude family’s lawyer in mid-August. Some two weeks later, the family’s press conference at City Hall kicked off the firestorm of protest.
Warren’s Aug. 6 email notwithstanding, Singletary maintained in his testimony that after demonstrations kicked off in September, Warren did a 180-degree reversal, flipping from being on more or less the same page as he in the Prude case to accusing the police chief of keeping her in the dark.
Asked by reporters during a Sept. 2 news conference when he stood at the mayor’s side to name the cause of Prude’s death, Singletary testified that he demurred because he had been instructed to do so by the city’s attorney. Rather than reveal the medical examiner’s homicide ruling, he stated that the matter was still under investigation.
“If it was up to me, we would have probably disclosed it,” Singletary told Celli.
Warren could not have been as ill informed as she claims to have been, Singletary insisted. Once the city was targeted by the Prude family’s notice of claim, the city’s legal team, Smith and Roj would have kept her in the loop, Singletary believes.
He thought he and Warren were initially on the same page, but Warren, aided by Roj and Smith, turned on him to conspire to make him a fall guy in a coverup he had no part in manufacturing, Singletary claimed.
“This goes to the point of the mayor throwing me under the bus,” Singletary told Celli. “You know, I was loyal to the mayor. I was loyal to her as my boss. Over 24 hours … something had changed between Sept. 2, when we came out and did (a) press conference (where) we had told the clergy at a church that those were the events, those were the facts, that we were waiting for the investigations to play out. Then on Sept. 3, 24 hours later, there’s another press conference that I’m not a part of, that I had no involvement (in) whatsoever, and it’s basically saying that me and my department mishandled the Prude matter, the death investigation, the death investigation of Mr. Prude. That is just not true. Me and my command staff handled this investigation as we would have handled any other investigation. I’m just trying to figure out what was the material fact that had changed between one, the meeting we had in August as well as the Sept. 2 press conference, and Sept. 3, when she threw me under the bus.”
It remains to be seen how Celli will weigh whatever Warren and her staff might have told him in testimony the public has not heard and most likely will not hear against Singletary’s version of events.
Evidence aired in Singletary’s deposition included a copy of notes Singletary made on what he might say in a news conference or interview if given the chance to publicly rebut what he sees as Warren’s false narrative.
Reading from that document Celli noted that Singletary began by reminding himself to extend condolences to the Prude family.
“That’s because you were considering delivering this or something like this in the context of a press statement? And the first thing you wanted to do was acknowledge the Prude family’s loss and extend your condolences?” Celli asked.
Singletary replied, making a statement that might stand as the best summary of the entire affair:
“Yes,” he said. “It’s a shame that they had to go through this.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.