NEW YORK – An investigation into the official response to Daniel Prude’s police suffocation death last year in Rochester, New York, is faulting the city’s mayor and former police chief for keeping critical details of the case secret for months and lying to the public about what they knew.
The report, commissioned by Rochester’s city council and made public Friday, said Mayor Lovely Warren lied at a September press conference when she said it wasn’t until August that she learned officers had physically restrained Prude during the March 23, 2020, arrest that led to his death.
Warren was told that very day that officers had used physical restraint, the report said, and by mid-April she, then-Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and other officials were aware Prude had died as a result and the officers were under criminal investigation.
“In the final analysis, the decision not to publicly disclose these facts rested with Mayor Warren, as the elected mayor of the city of Rochester,” said the report, written by New York City-based lawyer Andrew G. Celli Jr. “But Mayor Warren alone is not responsible for the suppression of the circumstances of the Prude arrest and Mr. Prude’s death.”
Warren said in a statement that she welcomed the report “because it allows our community to move forward.”
“Throughout city government, we have acknowledged our responsibility, recognized that changes are necessary and taken action,” she said, citing various measures on police practices and discipline.
In her statement, Warren didn’t address the report’s specific assessments of her own conduct.
A special counsel to the city administration disputed claims that Warren had lied.
The mayor spoke based on the facts known to her at the time and if what she said wasn't true it was because Singletary had misled her, Carrie Cohen said.
The report said Singletary told the mayor the officers restrained Prude, but the chief “consistently deemphasized” the role of restraints in Prude's death, and his statements to officials didn't “capture the disturbing tenor of the entire encounter."
Singletary’s characterization “likely impacted” how city officials viewed the matter, the report said.
A lawyer for Singletary said, under a first review of the report, Singletary “was truthful in his statements" to Warren and other city officials.
“He never participated in any cover-up nor did he intentionally downplay the circumstances" around Prude's death, Michael Tallon said in a statement.
“When asked by the mayor to lie, he declined and he announced his retirement the next day," he added.
Warren told the public Singletary initially told her Prude’s death was a “drug overdose,” but Friday’s report said he never told her that. Singletary, meanwhile, made “untrue statements by omission” when he failed to correct Warren's claim during a September news conference that she was not informed Prude's death had been ruled a homicide, the report said. It said Singletary told her of the finding on April 13.
Additionally, the report said, a city lawyer in August discouraged Warren from publicly disclosing Prude’s arrest or commencing disciplinary action against the officers after she viewed body camera video of the encounter for the first time.
The lawyer incorrectly stated that the city was barred from taking action against the officers while the state attorney general’s office was investigating Prude’s death, the report said.
“There are no surprises in there. It confirms most of what I already knew,” said attorney Elliot Shields, who represents Prude's brother, Joe.
“What it shows me on a larger scale is the systemic failures of the city,” he said.
The body camera video, made public by Prude’s family in early September, shows Prude handcuffed and naked with a spit hood over his head as an officer pushes his face against the ground, while another officer presses a knee to his back. The officers held him down for about two minutes until he stopped breathing. He was taken off life support a week later.
A grand jury last month declined to indict the officers involved.
Lawyers for the seven police officers suspended over Prude’s death have said the officers were strictly following their training that night, employing a restraining technique known as “segmenting.” They claimed Prude’s use of PCP, which caused irrational behavior, was “the root cause” of his death.
Rochester's city council authorized the independent investigation into the handling of Prude's death within days of the video being made public and voted to give investigators the power to subpoena city departments.
Celli, in the report, noted that the decision to inform the public of a significant event “is a policy judgment, and a political one, not a legal one,” and that there are no written rules or standards in Rochester governing the mayor or other officials in such matters.
“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,” Celli wrote. “The judges of that question are the citizens of the city of Rochester and the public at large.”
The report also confirms that Rochester police commanders urged city officials to hold off on publicly releasing the body camera footage of Prude’s suffocation death because they feared violent blowback if it came out during protests over the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
In a June 4 email, Deputy Chief Mark Simmons cited the “current climate” in the city and the nation and advised Singletary to press the city’s lawyers to deny a Prude family lawyer’s public records request for the footage of the encounter that led to 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,” Simmons wrote. “That would simply be a false narrative, and could create animosity and potentially violent blow back in this community as a result.”
“Totally agree,” Singletary replied, according to the emails.
Rochester officials released the emails last fall, along with police reports and other documents. Warren fired Singletary and suspended the city lawyer, Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin, and communications director Justin Roj without pay for 30 days in response to fallout over the case.
Prude’s death sparked several weeks of nightly protests and calls for Warren’s resignation. His family has filed a federal lawsuit alleging the police department sought to cover up the true nature of Prude’s death.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York and Carolyn Thompson in Buffalo contributed.