Steve Orr and Justin Murphy Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
Published 5:00 PM EDT Sep 15, 2020
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – In early June, as American cities reeled with angry protests over the death of George Floyd, police commanders in Rochester, New York, were trying hard to prevent the very similar death of Daniel Prude from going public.
Releasing the video, which depicts Rochester officers restraining Prude until his heart and lungs failed, could have “intense ramifications,” Capt. Frank Umbrino told a higher-up in a June 4 email.
Deputy Chief Mark Simmons picked up the urgent thread in an email to Chief La’Ron Singletary a few hours later.
“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 in an email. “That would simply be a false narrative, and could create animosity and potentially violent blow back in this community as a result.”
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He recommended that Singletary ask city lawyers to refuse to release the video.
“I totally agree,” Singletary emailed back minutes later.
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And city lawyers did their best to oblige, stalling the release of the videos for two more months.
In a 325-page cache of documents released Monday by City Hall about the city’s handling — and mishandling — of the Prude case, the arguments by police to suppress the video that showed his death were among the most compelling.
Many of the documents touch on actions by leadership in the police department and suggest police actively worked to conceal what had happened. The documents were released Monday as Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren announced she was relieving Police Chief La’Ron Singletary of his command and suspending two other top officials.
Together, the documents call into question key parts of the city’s evolving argument over the last two weeks about why Prude’s death was not disclosed to the public for five long months and who was working internally to keep it private.
Prude, a 41-year-year-old Chicago resident who was visiting his brother in Rochester, was dealing with some combination of problems related to mental health and drug use. It led his brother, Joe Prude, to call for help twice in a matter of hours on March 22 and early March 23.
The first time he was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital and quickly released. The second time he was killed.
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Rochester legal strategy on Prude video: Deny, delay
From the moment that Elliot Shields, a Prude family attorney, first filed a Freedom of Information request, the Rochester Police Department pursued a strategy of delaying the release of the footage.
On April 6, a city FOIL officer forwarded Shields’ request to RPD and asked whether it involved an open investigation — a determination that could serve as reason to deny the request.
Sgt. Adam Correia replied that it was an open investigation and then forwarded his response to Lt. Michael Perkowski, who answered: “That is how I would have answered the initial request as well. However, I can tell you that this will probably be appealed and he will win. The City has already been notified about an impending law suit.”
Rochester police officials made this legalistic argument to the city’s lawyers again two months later. Ultimately, though, the law department relied on foot-dragging to delay the release.
A June 4 email chain involving higher-ups at the police department – Umbrino, Simmons and Singletary – was forwarded the same day to Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin, who in turn sent it immediately along to municipal attorney Stephanie Prince.
“Can you review this? Can we deny/delay?” he asked her, referring to the Freedom of Information request from the Prude family attorneys.
Already that morning, Prince had called Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Sommers to ask for advice on Curtin’s question. It is this conversation, on June 4, that the city had cited earlier as the reason it withheld news of Prude’s death from the public even after Warren allegedly became aware in August.
Sommers, city officials have maintained in the past, had told them to keep it quiet.
An email from the municipal attorney, Prince, to Coporation Counsel Curtin describing her call with Assistant AG Sommers paints a different picture.
In the email, Prince said Sommers had suggested a solution to avoid making the video public: Sommers was to invite Don Thompson, one of Prude’s lawyers, to her office to view the footage on the condition that he not be given a copy of his own.
“This way, the City is not releasing anything pertaining to the case for at least a month (more like 2), and it will not be publicly available,” Prince wrote, explaining that the file would require “heavy redacting,” in part because Prude was naked. “After receiving the below I reached out to (Sommers) and asked her to hold off on contacting Don Thompson until I got back to you.”
Prince’s estimate of a two-month delay turned out to be close, but somewhat conservative. It was not until Aug. 12, nine weeks after the email exchange, that the city mailed the footage to the Prude family attorneys.
The family released it to the public three weeks later.
April 10 email: ‘The Mayor has been in the loop’
Nothing in the 325 pages, save for one line, undercuts Warren’s insistence that she did not know the true nature of what happened to Prude until early August, a week before the damning videos were released to Prude’s family and lawyers.
That one exception comes in an April 10 email from the now former police chief, Singletary, to city communications director Justin Roj, who also was suspended Monday for allegedly failing to look into the Prude case and alert the mayor.
The email, Singletary wrote, was to “loop (Roj) in on an in custody incident that occurred.” He briefly summarized how Prude died: “Officers did stabilize the individual on the ground. While doing so, he did stop breathing.”
Singletary informed Roj that the medical examiner’s office that very day had classified the death as a “homicide” — the quotation marks are Singletary’s — with “PCP in his system per toxicology reports, excited delirium (and) resisting arrest” as contributing factors.
The chief’s summary of Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Nadia Granger’s report was incomplete and inaccurate. She did not, as he wrote, cite “resisting arrest” as a contributing factor. She did, however, list “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
“The Mayor has been in the loop on such since 3/23,” Singletary concluded. “Law is in the loop. I am just waiting for the Mayor to call me back to give her the update on the M.E.’s ruling.”
Roj responded: “Chief, thanks for making me aware. No one has reached out from the media, yet. … I appreciate you letting me know.”
The exchange leads to several questions that Warren was unavailable to answer Monday, one being what Singletary meant when he said the mayor was “in the loop.”
In a statement Monday, Roj, the city communications director, said that because Singletary told him the mayor and legal department were already “looped in,” he didn’t take it upon himself to bring it up again with them.
At a Sept. 6 press conference, Singletary dodged the question of whether he ever spoke with Warren about the case between March 30, when Prude died, and Aug. 4, when Warren said she first saw the video.
In a separate report by Deputy Mayor James Smith, also released by the mayor on Monday, Smith wrote that he checked the email of 28 city employees, including the mayor and the chief, and found no written communication to Warren that revealed what had really happened to Prude.
“I could find no documentation of the chief’s communications with the Mayor as would be expected in a situation of this magnitude; and In this absence must conclude they (the communications) were limited to informal, oral conversations,” Smith wrote.
He said Warren and Singletary had been in meetings together more than 50 times between March 23, the day Prude was suffocated, and Aug. 4, the day that Warren maintains she learned the details of his death.
Characterizations of Daniel Prude: Victim or suspect?
“Make him a suspect,” reads a hand-written edit to a police incident report on Prude’s mental-health detention by officers in the early-morning hours of March 23.
The notation is one of several recommended changes that would have had the effect of depicting Prude as a suspected criminal and not just someone in need of mental health intervention.
Reports were generated that morning on two related incidents. One was the interaction with the naked, confused Prude by officers who quickly decided to detain him under the state’s mental hygiene law. The other report concerned a broken window at a store that later was attributed to Prude.
The latter incident was a crime, though Prude was never charged with it. The former incident was not a crime.
Sgt. Flamur Zenelovic, a supervisor in the major crimes unit, wrote in an email included in the cache released Monday that he wanted the incident reports changed to indicate that Prude was a suspect in the broken window incident when he was being restrained and suffocated by officers.
In fact, the body-worn camera video of the incident that led to Prude’s death shows he was never treated as a criminal suspect there.
In a memo later on March 23, Zenelovic wrote: “At this time we are not planning on doing any additional interviews of officers. The suspect is from Chicago and has no local arrests but a very lengthy arrest record in Chicago.”
Taken together, the edits and his comment in the memo suggest an attempt to cast Prude in a more negative light.
Lieutenant sought conversation with medical examiner before autopsy
A private word? That’s what a lieutenant in the major crimes unit sought with Granger, the medical examiner, before she conducted the autopsy.
“Can you and I have a conversation before you start that. It is somewhat sensitive, as he was in police custody when he was sent to the hospital. I was on scene and have all of the details for you,” Lt. Michael Perkowski emailed to Granger via her confidential assistant on March 31. Contrary to his email, Perkowski was not present during the Prude incident, according to police reports and video.
Granger agreed to talk to him, according to emails in the cache of documents. The substance of that conversation was not stated.
In his report, Smith, the deputy mayor, wrote that Perkowski’s action “certainly could leave one with the appearance of an attempt to influence the outcome of the ME’s ruling on the manner of death.”
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In their first joint comments after Prude’s death became public, Warren and Singletary were firm: this was no cover-up. But that assurance has failed to persuade the thousands of protesters who have marched nightly, demanding that both the chief and the mayor resign.
A slew of investigatory actions, including the empaneling of a grand jury, is now underway. The full extent of the damage — for the police department, for the mayor and for the image of the city as a whole — has yet to be revealed.
Follow reporter Steve Orr on Twitter at @SOrr1; follow reporter Justin Murphy on Twitter at @CitizenMurphy
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