RPD to mull charges against officers in Prude case

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Rochester’s police chief says her department will consider charges against officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude next month. 

Released by Rochester City Council yesterday, Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan’s March 19 statement on the officers comes in response to a resolution passed by Council three days earlier urging the RPD to hit officers involved in Prude’s death with disciplinary actions. Prude was arrested a year ago today.

Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan

Council’s action and Herriott-Sullivan’s response arrive two weeks after Council’s receipt of an independent counsel’s review of Prude’s death at the hands of RPD officers. The report found that members of Mayor Lovely Warren’s administration, including Warren herself and former Chief of Police La’Ron Singletary, kept the circumstances of Prude’s death under wraps for months. Council has so far made no statement on the Warren administration’s role. 

Prude died a week after officers restrained him, putting pressure on his head and back as he lay naked on a 19th Ward street. His family had called 911 twice, seeking help for dealing with Prude, who was high on PCP, a powerful hallucinogen. 

In their first encounter with Prude, police took Prude to Strong Memorial Hospital, which released him. Hours later, family members sought help a second time after Prude, who was visiting from Chicago, ran from his brother’s home scantily clad and under the drug’s influence. 

During his second encounter with Rochester police, Prude lost consciousness and was taken to Strong Memorial, where he succumbed a week later. The Monroe County medical examiner later ruled his death a homicide due to asphyxiation. 

At the time not publicly revealed, Prude’s death was echoed by the highly publicized May 2020 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which sparked widespread Black Lives Matter protests in U.S. cities including Rochester. Prude’s death only came to light in September after the city released body worn camera footage of Prude’s arrest to his family.   

Demonstrations in which protestors called for Warren and Singletary to step down rocked the city for weeks after the Prude family revealed the incident in a press conference at City Hall. Warren subsequently fired Singletary but has not herself stepped down. In testimony to Andrew Celli, the attorney Council hired to investigate the incident, Singletary repeatedly excoriated Warren for “throwing me under the bus.”  

Warren initially blamed Singletary for keeping her in the dark on the circumstances of Prude’s death. However, Celli found after exhaustively interviewing city and RPD officials involved that Warren likely knew details of the incident earlier than she first admitted to. 

Singletary and city officials hoped to keep footage of the arrest under wraps for as long as a year, fearing that release of the footage would spark demonstrations like those already underway after Floyd’s death, Celli concluded. 

Rochester Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin and Communications Director Justin Roj knew and mischaracterized details of the incident and its aftermath, Celli found. Warren apparently accepted their mischaracterizations as fact. Though she could have questioned her lieutenants more closely on the Prude matter, she did not do so, the investigator concluded. Footage of the incident was released to Prude’s family by a city attorney who mistakenly believed Curtin had authorized the release, Celli determined. 

Singletary had immediately launched an internal RPD criminal probe and an RPD Professional Standards Section review of the incident. Neither resulted in the officers’ removal from active duty or disciplinary action. Warren was outraged by what she saw as the officers’ cavalier treatment of Prude and took them off street duty after she viewed footage of the incident in early August and upbraided Singletary in a stinging Aug. 6 email.

Under a recently enacted state directive calling for the state attorney general to investigate in-custody deaths, state Attorney General Letitia James’ office also launched a probe of Prude’s arrest and death. James presented a case for criminally indicting the RPD officers to a grand jury. But the grand jury did not call for an indictment. 

“While the investigation conducted by the Attorney General’s Office did not result in criminal charges against the officers involved in the Daniel Prude matter, the members of the City Council overwhelmingly believe that these officers should have to face serious consequences,” Council President Loretta Scott said in a March 22 statement. 

The criminal probe of the Prude incident conducted by RPD’s Major Crimes Unit on Singletary’s orders last year did not find basis for criminal charges. 

Herriott-Sullivan is not promising any specific action beyond a new investigation of the officers’ conduct. There are a number of procedures that must be followed, the police chief notes. Officers who are charged have a 10-day window to respond before formal charges can be leveled. Filing of formal charges can be followed by some two months of proceedings before a determination is made.

“I estimate that the internal investigation will be completed within the next two months,” Herriott-Sullivan states in her response to Council. “After the investigation has been completed, I am mandated under the collective bargaining agreement, Civil Service rules and current policies and procedures to follow a process with respect to discipline. 

“I expect that the determination on any departmental charges will take place in April. I already have a meeting scheduled this week to receive an investigative update with the Professional Standards Section, along with the attorney representing the Department on this case.”

Whether Council will demand any further action in light of the Celli report remains to be seen.

“It is not for the Special Council Investigator to pass judgment on whether the decisions by Rochester officials not to disclose the arrest and death of Daniel Prude were right or wrong. The judges of that question are the citizens of the City of Rochester and the public at large,” Celli wrote in his March 12 report.

Council plans to make a further statement on the Prude matter later this week, says Michael Patterson, Northeast District Council representative. Patterson sat on a special committee formed to oversee Celli’s investigation. 

Other than saying that it would come in reaction to statements officials made to Celli in depositions, Patterson declined to characterize the nature of the coming statement or say whether it would recommend or call for further action.

Four other Council members contacted by the Rochester Beacon did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the independent counsel’s report.

At-Large Councilmember Malik Evans, who also was a member of the committee overseeing the Celli investigation, in a March 12 statement said the report “makes clear that this tragedy was compounded by the fact information related to Daniel Prude’s death was not handled in an open and transparent manner. I share the community’s frustration that there was almost a five-month delay before they and all City Council members received any information on this tragedy.” 

Evans is slated to challenge Warren in a June Democratic primary election for the party’s nod in the upcoming mayoral race. 

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

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