Prude grand jury decides: no charges

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Daniel Prude died in March after Rochester police took him into custody.
(Photo: M.K.Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence)

Words of disappointment and outrage greeted state Attorney General Letitia James’ announcement that a grand jury on Tuesday voted against indicting Rochester police officers on criminal charges related to last year’s death of Daniel Prude.

“This is not justice,” said state Sen. Samra Brouk. “I am outraged and heartbroken by the grand jury’s decision to decline to bring charges against the officers involved in Daniel Prude’s death.

“Daniel died alone and naked on a Rochester street in the middle of a freezing winter night, and no one is being held accountable for that.”

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello called for unity as the community pursues reform, noting that Prude’s tragic death has caused an enormous pain that continues to resonate today.

“It has left us all searching for answers on how to do better and hold ourselves accountable to addressing a system that is clearly unjust, one that was devoid of compassion for someone who was crying out for help,” Bello said.

Tuesday’s decision, he said, has exposed a failure of the criminal justice system to respond to the crisis and underscored the urgent need for change

State Sen. Jeremy Cooney said: “Time after time, our criminal justice system fails to protect Black and Brown citizens.”

James, who announced the grand jury’s decision during a news conference at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church in Rochester Tuesday afternoon, said her office had concluded that there was sufficient evidence surrounding Prude’s death to warrant presenting the case to a grand jury.

Letitia James

“I know that the Prude family, the Rochester community and communities across the country will rightly be disappointed by this outcome,” she said. “We sought a different outcome than the one the grand jury handed us today. We made every attempt to demonstrate the facts, but ultimately we have to respect the decision.”

Prude died on March 30, 2020, after becoming unresponsive in an encounter with Rochester Police Department officers. Police body-cam footage obtained by the Prude family in August showed officers handcuffing a naked Prude, who was under the influence of the drug phencyclidine, and placing him face down on the pavement. Prude stopped breathing after he was restrained by three officers. His head was encased in a “spit sock.” Prude died a week after being taken into police custody, at Strong Memorial Hospital. 

The Monroe County medical examiner ruled the cause of death was homicide. The causes were complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint; excited delirium; and acute phencyclidine intoxication. 

On July 15, Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order enabling the attorney general’s office to investigate potential unlawful acts or omissions by law enforcement related to Prude’s death, a detailed report from the attorney general’s office, prepared before the grand jury vote, states. 

In its investigation, the attorney general’s office retained Gary Vilke M.D., an expert in restraint-related death to review Prude’s death. Vilke drew many conclusions similar to those of the medical examiner. He said that PCP ingestion precipitated the state of excited delirium. People suffering from this condition are vulnerable to death by cardiac arrest, which is how Prude died.

Additionally, James’ office received an opinion from Geoffrey Alpert, an authority on police procedures and use of force. Upon reviewing the evidence, Alpert found that placing the spit sock over Prude’s head, taking him to the ground, and performing the “segmenting” maneuver, were all within the scope of reasonable (although not necessarily the best) police practices under the circumstances, the report states. However, Alpert noted that the officers’ conduct in not rolling Mr. Prude over from the prone position, particularly after he vomited, was contrary to acceptable police practice. 

James did not hide her disappointment with the grand jury’s decision.

“The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold law enforcement officers accountable for the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans,” she said. “And what binds these cases is a tragic loss of life in circumstance in which the death could have been avoided. These incidents have challenged public confidence and trust in our criminal justice system. And history has unfortunately repeated itself again in the case of Daniel Prude.”

James said the criminal justice system is badly in need of change.

“The system was built to protect and shield officers from accountability (for wrongdoing),” she said. “The system too often allows officers to use deadly force unnecessarily and without consequence. And that is a system that at its core is broken. Someone once said that the dead cannot cry out for justice. It is the duty of the living to do so for them.”

Added James: “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 attorney general said she is committed to pursuing a multifaceted approach to address the issues that have prevented communities from holding officers accountable when they use deadly force improperly.

To that end, James put forth recommendations for the RPD while handling mental health crisis situations:

  • Law enforcement officers, emergency communications providers (dispatchers), and emergency medical service personnel must be trained to recognize the symptoms of excited delirium syndrome and to respond to it as a serious medical emergency.
  • All communities should assess models for responding to crisis situations that minimize or eliminate police responses to mental health calls whenever possible; passing “Daniel’s Law” would greatly aid in this endeavor.
  • New York should mandate de-escalation training for all police officers, and police agencies should reflect a commitment to de-escalation in their use of force policies.
  • The city of Rochester should adopt a body worn camera release policy regarding critical incidents.
  • Law enforcement agencies should explore the use of spit sock alternatives.

The grand jury decision does not preclude the Prude family from pursuing charges in a civil case. The family’s attorneys, Romanucci & Blandin LLC and Ben Crump Law, at this date are not speaking publicly about the decision. 

A portion of a statement issued by the attorneys reads: “This tragedy could have been avoided if officers had been properly trained but also used basic human decency and common sense to treat Mr. Prude with compassion and get him the medical attention he deserved. We will continue to advocate for justice in the civil courts, while also seeking federal police reform so that these continued tragedies against Black citizens end once and for all.”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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