A year ago today, the family of Daniel Prude stood on the steps of Rochester City Hall and publicly revealed for the first time Prude’s death after he was restrained by Rochester Police Department officers and placed in custody.
What made the Prude family’s revelation a bombshell, in part, was the five-month lag between his death and their Sept. 2, 2020, news conference, which the family held after obtaining video footage of Prude’s arrest. Another factor was an eerie similarity between Prude’s death and the death of George Floyd two months later in Minneapolis.
Both men were Black; and like Prude, Floyd died after being held to the pavement by police. Floyd’s death, which immediately drew national attention, sparked Black Lives Matter demonstrations in cities across the country—Rochester among them—and around the world.
The Prude family’s revelations helped further energize the local BLM movement and roiled city government as demonstrators called for Mayor Lovely Warren and La’Ron Singletary, the city’s police chief, to resign.
Fired by Warren shortly afterward, Singletary lost his job as he and the mayor traded barbs over the Prude controversy. Warren named Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, a retired Rochester Police Department lieutenant, as Singletary’s replacement, making Herriot-Sullivan the city’s first female African-American chief.
The mayor weathered the initial storm, but in June she suffered a landslide loss in the Democratic primary, virtually assuring the ascension of her challenger, City Council member Malik Evans, to the city’s top job after the November election.
Warren’s felony indictment for alleged election missteps and the embarrassment of a husband accused of being a major player in a drug gang almost certainly were factors in her downfall. Still, the specter of her role in a possible coverup in the Prude affair did little to help her bid for a fourth term. Warren spokesman Justin Roj did not respond to an email requesting comment by Warren or other city officials for this piece. Herriott-Sullivan also did not respond to requests for comment. Singletary likewise did not respond to an emailed query.
While the Prude case unquestionably impacted the mayor’s office and RPD over the last 12 months, much has not changed, and the future remains uncertain. The Commission on Racial and Structural Equity in March called for the city of Rochester and Monroe County to address deeply embedded practices and conditions in local government and other institutions that have long worked systemically against people of color, but it remains be seen how many of its recommendations are adopted. The last year has seen an increase in some types of crime and the police union maintains that its ability to respond is limited because manpower is short. For the next mayor, the road ahead is fraught with challenge.
A sense of disappointment
Prude died in late March 2020. He succumbed a week after a 3 a.m. encounter with RPD officers that ended with an unconscious Prude being taken to Strong Memorial Hospital. He never regained consciousness. Hours earlier, his distraught family members had called 911 over concerns that Prude, who had taken a powerful hallucinogen, might hurt himself.
In the earlier encounter, police took Prude to Strong, but hospital staff released Prude and sent him home. When Prude ran from his relatives’ house in an agitated state, they called 911 again. Police found Prude naked, bleeding and incoherent on a city street; they held him down to the pavement and after he told them he had COVID and threatened to spit on them, put a mesh hood over his head.
Monroe County Medical Examiner Nadia Granger M.D. determined Prude’s death to be a homicide due to asphyxiation. Her March 30, 2020, report also noted that while in police custody Prude had been high on the hallucinogen PCP. Using a term that some have criticized as lacking a precise scientific definition, Granger said Prude had been in a state of “excited delirium.” Prude’s clinical history included suicidal ideation, auditory hallucinations and paranoia, the Granger’s report states.
Mike Johnson, Rajesh Barnabas and Mike Mazzeo each see reasons to be disappointed over changes that have occurred in the city in the year since the Prude family’s revelation. Johnson and Barnabas are BLM activists. Mazzeo heads the union representing RPD rank-and-file patrol officers, the Rochester Police Locust Club. Not surprisingly, their takes differ.
All three see crime, gun violence and disorder in the city as problems that have grown over the past year. Mazzeo traces such problems to cuts in the city’s police budget, and attempts by Warren to shift blame from herself to the RPD for what many have seen as her administration’s coverup of the circumstances of Prude’s death.
Changes in state law like bail reform also have hobbled police, leading to demoralization in the RPD’s ranks, Mazzeo adds. Many officers have quit or retired and only a comparative trickle of recruits are seeking jobs with the department. Lack of manpower is keeping police from adequately enforcing the law.
Johnson and Barnabas, who are not personally acquainted, see the situation differently than Mazzeo. Both men are Rochester City School District teachers. Johnson is African American, Barnabas is of Asian and Irish-American parentage. Each began taking part in local BLM protests in spring 2020 and continued their activism after Prude’s death pumped new energy into the local movement.
Their disappointment is rooted in a sense that commitment to bringing about changes BLM protesters seek is flagging in the wider, non-minority community, most troublingly among whites who declared themselves as BLM allies in the movement’s heated earlier days.
A year ago, “so many people came out to support the Black community,” Johnson laments. Now, he says, “I feel a sense of abandonment.”
While Mazzeo sees cuts to the RPD’s budget as a woe, Johnson and Barnabas embrace the defund-the-police slogan. They don’t mean quite the same thing by it, however.
Barnabas believes that police departments as they now exist need to be entirely dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up as soon as possible, with many situations police now respond to handled instead by specially trained social workers or other mental health professionals. He is distrustful of reform and does not believe changes in training will do enough to change police behavior. (Barnabas fell 11 votes shy of winning the Democratic Party’s nod for a Monroe County Legislature seat in the June primary. He is on the November ballot on the Working Families Party line.)
Johnson agrees that police funding needs to be redirected and policing need to be reimagined along more “community-oriented” lines, but he does not favor the immediate complete abolition of police departments.
Johnson took leave from his job as an elementary school teacher last year to take part in local BLM protests. He went on to found Save Rochester, a BLM-oriented organization he heads as executive director. Johnson is currently weighing whether to return to teaching or to keep working for change as a full-time activist.
Gap in perception
The perception of a crime surge in the city, which influences the debate over policing, is not entirely supported by data. Figures compiled by the RPD show some types of crime have increased in recent years, but others have remained stable or moved up and down.
Homicides in Rochester increased from 36 in 2012 to 41 in 2013 but fell to 30 in 2015. They went up to 33 in 2019 and rose further to 45 last year. This year, police have recorded 37 homicides as of Aug. 28.
Robberies have seen a mostly downward trend, falling from 900 in 2013 to 500 in 2020 and 304 as of Aug. 28. According to the RPD, the city saw 2,727 burglaries in 2012 but only 1,478 in 2020. There have been 533 burglaries in the city so far this year. Aggravated assaults, a category that includes but is not limited to shootings, were at a peak last year at 1,114, up from 936 in 2019. As of Aug. 28, they stand at 698 this year.
Aside from statistics, Mazzeo sees evidence of rising disorder in increasing numbers of dirt-bike riders and drag racers careening around city streets at high speeds. Demoralized RPD officers are loath to rein in the speedsters, he laments. Manpower reductions are a prime reason. The department’s five patrol sections had an authorized staff of 535 in 2015, a number that is now cut to 308. Officers out of service for various reasons such as sick leave, vacation or assignment to administrative duty typically takes approximately 47 out of that total, leaving a force that, Mazzeo contends, is stretched too thin.
Johnson and Barnabas see such arguments as missing a key point that, as they and many in communities of color see it, problems with policing are not a matter of too few or too many officers but of embedded attitudes in the institution. These attitudes lead to outcomes like Black and Hispanic males accounting for an outsized percentage of civilians killed by police and of the U.S. prison population.
Statistics lend weight to such arguments. The U.S. Census Bureau counts African Americans as representing 13.8 percent of the country’s population and Hispanics at 18.5 percent. According to the commercial provider of various demographic statistics Statista, between 2015 and July of this year, fatal police shootings of Black Americans stood at 37 per million of population, while fatal police shootings of whites stood at 15 per million. Blacks and Hispanics accounted for 65 percent of all U.S. fatal police shootings.
A 2019 Pew Research paper found the gap between white and Black prison populations to be shrinking with whites accounting for an increasing share. However, the paper notes that as of 2017, African Americans accounted for 12 percent of U.S. population and 33 percent of the country’s prison population.
U.S. police departments, including the RPD, increasingly operate with a military mindset, an attitude that enflames rather than cools race relations, Johnson says. Barnabas concurs.
Last June, a group of Rochester BLM protestors filed a class-action complaint in the Rochester federal court accusing police of “indiscriminately” assaulting and pepper spraying “peaceful protestors” who were demonstrating in support of the Prude family. The lawsuit targets Warren, Singletary and Herriott-Sullivan along with a number of police officers. It seeks unspecified punitive damages for an undetermined number of plaintiffs.
While the gap between BLM protestors and the RPD’s perceptions is unquestionably wide, it may not be unbridgeable. Asked whether they could conceive of somehow meeting their counterparts on the other side of the divide in some middle ground, Mazzeo, Johnson and Barnabas answer in the affirmative.
Mazzeo says that what protestors see as bias can merely be the result of officers reacting as they are trained to do. Officers who held Prude to the ground were employing segmenting, a technique for restraining unruly suspects taught in police academies around the state.
The extent to which détente between the disparate views of BLM advocates and supporters of traditional policing like Mazzeo might be possible will depend in part on the nature and intentions of the new mayoral administration that will take over in January, all three men say.
As a council member, Evans has been critical of Warren’s conduct in the Prude affair. He was among members who organized an extensive investigation of the Warren administration’s conduct that found Warren’s claim to have only been informed of the manner of Prude’s death late in the game to be not credible. Insofar as the Prude controversy can lead to better handling of mental health crises, Evans sees some good coming out of it. As the likely incoming mayor, he sees no gain in flaying Warren.
In the primary campaign, Evans says, “I focused on my (positive) message. My message carried the day.”
As mayor, he plans to hew to that line.
“I want to make sure Rochester thrives,” Evans told the Rochester Beacon during the campaign. “There is no reason why Rochester should not be a tech hub, an innovation hub. We have the brain power in this region to be the Silicon Valley of Upstate New York. We have some of the smartest people and some of the best resources around, but you got to bridge the gap from that person on Joseph Avenue to that person that might be at that tech company.”
Legacies the city’s next mayor will inherit include the lawsuit filed by Prude family members. Mazzeo points to an investigation by state Attorney General Letitia James, which cleared RPD officers involved in the arrest of wrongdoing, as evidence that the Prude family’s court action is ill founded. Still, Mazzeo believes that by failing to close an RPD investigation of the Prude incident, the Warren administration is kicking the can down the road in a way that could make the lawsuit as problem for Evans. He sees Evans’ installation as mayor as a positive step to look forward to.
Still, he predicts, “after six more months of Warren, things will be hard for Malik in January.”
In an Aug. 23 letter to Magistrate Judge Jonathan Feldman, a city lawyer cited the ongoing RPD investigation as reason for the city to not directly defend accused officers.
“Any allegations that might be sustained against these defendants could give rise to a conflict between the Law Department’s concurrent representation of these three officers, on the one hand, and its representation of the City, on the other,” Deputy Corporation Counsel Patrick Beath states in the letter.
Like Mazzeo, Johnson and Barnabas have positive views of Evans. Still, both activists are cautious in their expectations of what Evans might be able to accomplish.
Johnson’s positive impressions are based on Evans’ public profile and actions as a former RCSD school board president and City Council member but also on some personal familiarity with Evans and a closer acquaintance with some of Evans’ immediate family members.
Still, as he looks ahead to an Evans administration, Johnson says, “I’m not sure what to anticipate.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.