Daniel Prude’s Death Leads to No Charges for Police

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The police officers who placed a mesh hood on a Black man last year and pressed his head down until he lost consciousness will not be charged in his death, officials said Tuesday, after a grand jury convened to investigate the case declined to bring an indictment.

The killing of the man, Daniel Prude, in Rochester, N.Y., touched off intense protests in that city and others during a national reckoning around racism and brutality in policing. Mr. Prude’s death was one of many instances in which Black men died in police custody in recent years.

Public records showed that the Rochester Police Department sought to conceal the circumstances — captured in graphic police body camera footage — of Mr. Prude’s death. The case led to the dismissal of the city’s police chief.

“We sought a different outcome than the one the grand jury handed us today,” said New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, who convened the panel to investigate Mr. Prude’s death.

Ms. James, speaking at a news conference at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church in Rochester, expressed clear disappointment with the result.

“The criminal justice system has demonstrated an unwillingness to hold law enforcement officers accountable in the unjustified killing of unarmed African-Americans,” Ms James said. “What binds these cases is the tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could be avoided.”

Mr. Prude, 41, was visiting his brother in Rochester in March when he had an apparent psychotic episode. He ran into the street naked and was handcuffed by officers. Mr. Prude, who had told at least one passer-by that he had the coronavirus, began spitting, and the officers responded by pulling a mesh hood over his head.

When he tried to get up, the officers forced Mr. Prude facedown on the ground, one of them pushing his head to the pavement, police body camera footage showed. The police held Mr. Prude down for two minutes, and he had to be resuscitated. He died in the hospital a week later, on March 30. His death was later ruled a homicide.

Credit…Prude Family Photo

But the circumstances of Mr. Prude’s death did not become public until September, and only after lawyers for his family pushed for the release of body camera footage.

“These incidents have challenged public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system, and history has unfortunately repeated itself once again in the death of Daniel Prude,” Ms. James said.

But her announcement confirmed that there would be no charges for any of the seven officers involved: Officers Josiah Harris, Francisco Santiago, Paul Ricotta, Andrew Specksgoor, Mark Vaughn and Troy Taladay and Sgt. Michael Magri.

The killing set off protests across Rochester, a small city just south of Lake Ontario. At points, police officers in riot gear fired chemical irritants at the demonstrators, most of whom remained peaceful.

Concrete barriers formed a reinforced perimeter around Rochester’s Public Safety Building on Tuesday as word spread that an announcement about the case was imminent.

Ms. James said that she planned to meet with the Prude family immediately after the news conference, as well as with the family of a 9-year-old Black girl who was handcuffed and pepper sprayed by Rochester police in the back of a police car on Jan. 29 by officers called to her home about a domestic dispute.

Rochester City Council members also sent a memo on Tuesday afternoon to the city’s interim police chief, calling for an immediate ban on the use of chemical agents during protests and the establishment of clear “rules of engagement.”

Mr. Prude’s killing upended the political order in Rochester.

Records released in an internal review of the episode appeared to show that city officials had tried for months to suppress video footage of the encounter, and misrepresented the cause of his death.

“We certainly do not want people to misinterpret the officers’ actions and conflate this incident with any recent killings of unarmed Black men by law enforcement nationally,” a deputy police chief wrote in a June 4 email to his boss, advising him not to release the footage to the Prude family’s lawyer. “That would simply be a false narrative, and could create animosity and potentially violent blowback in this community as a result.”

The police chief replied minutes later: “I totally agree.”

For months, Mr. Prude’s death had been presented in police accounts as a fatal drug overdose. In his autopsy, Mr. Prude was found to have PCP, also known as angel dust, in his system. But the cause of Mr. Prude’s death, the medical examiner determined, was asphyxia.

Mayor Lovely Warren, who had already suspended the seven officers, fired the police chief and suspended several city staff members shortly after the revelations.

This month, Ms. Warren submitted a draft proposal for sweeping changes to the police force, following an executive order requiring communities across the state to investigate ways to reimagine policing.

Ms. James’ investigation was made possible by a 2015 executive order that empowered the attorney general to investigate and prosecute police officers when an unarmed civilian is killed. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed the order after a grand jury declined to indict the New York City police officer who held Eric Garner, a Black man from Staten Island, in a chokehold until he died.

Ms. James said that her office would pursue several reforms to policing aimed in part at addressing barriers to “holding officers accountable who use deadly force without justification,” including raising standards on when the use of force by officers is deemed acceptable.

“The cornerstone of this effort is to amend the use-of-force law from one of subjective, simple necessity to one of absolute last-resort,” Ms. James said. “Our goal is to preserve lives.”

Dan Higgins contributed reporting from Rochester, and Troy Closson from New York.

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