New York State Attorney General Letitia James announced today that a grand jury has voted not to indict any police officers on charges related to the death of Daniel Prude.
None of the seven officers involved in Prude’s death will face criminal charges for their actions, though the Monroe County Medical Examiner determined Prude’s death was a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
“The current laws on deadly force have created a system that utterly and abjectly failed Mr. Prude and so many others before him,” James said. “Serious reform is needed, not only at the Rochester Police Department, but to our criminal justice system as a whole. I will be pursuing a multifaceted approach to address the very issues that have prevented us from holding officers accountable when they improperly use deadly force.”
James said that her office believed there was sufficient evidence surrounding Prude’s death to present the case to a grand jury and that they “presented the strongest case possible.” She said she was “disappointed, extremely disappointed,” with the decision, and that her office would push to change the law so that police officers may only use deadly force as a last resort.
The Department of Justice said in a statement that it would review James’s report and “determine whether any further federal response is warranted.”
“Throughout our city’s history, criminal prosecutions have failed to deliver justice for Black and Brown people harmed by police,” said Shani Wilson, chair of Rochester’s Police Accountability Board, in a statement shared on Twitter. “Every failure to deliver justice for officer wrongdoing proves that the PAB needs to have its disciplinary powers returned, its investigations unimpeded, and its work fully funded.”
The announcement came nearly a year after an encounter with Rochester police left Prude brain dead. On March 23, Rochester resident Joe Prude called the police for help. His brother was acting strangely and had suddenly bolted out the back door wearing nothing but a tank top and long johns despite the snow.
But when police found Daniel Prude, naked and walking in the street, they handcuffed him, mocked him, put a mesh bag over his head, knelt on his back, and pushed his face into the ground until he stopped breathing. He was declared brain dead, and died in the hospital a week later.
Prude had complied with the officers’ commands, sitting on the ground and allowing his hands to be cuffed behind his back. He remained on the wet ground, naked as snow fell on him, throughout the encounter. He occasionally spat and repeated the same phrases over and over again. In response, the police officers mocked Prude, asking him if he had AIDS, and put a spit hood over his head.
When Rochester police officer Mark Vaughn put the hood over Prude’s head, Prude’s demeanor changed. His voice began to quiver, and it sounded like he was on the verge of tears. He repeatedly asked officers to take the mask off his face, and told the officers to give him their mace, handcuffs, and guns.
After about a minute of this, while Prude sat upright but still handcuffed and on the ground, Vaughn and officer Troy Taladay approached Prude and pushed him onto the ground.
Taladay knelt on Prude’s back while Vaughn pushed Prude’s face into the ground. Prude repeatedly asked the officers to get off him. Prude’s speech then became garbled and difficult to understand. He cried and made sputtering sounds, but the officers did not relent.
When two emergency medical technicians arrived, one asked the officers if Prude felt hot.
“Do you want me to take his temperature?” Taladay said sarcastically, pointing to Prude’s buttocks. The EMT laughed. By this point, Prude had already stopped moving and talking.
“At first he’s talking, and then he’s whimpering, and then he goes silent,” Elliot Dolby-Shields, an attorney representing Prude’s family, previously told The Appeal. “And they all laugh. They’re having a good time, and you can see at that moment that his hand stops twitching, and his chest stops going up and down, and he’s dying, and they’re just casually making jokes.”
The EMTs performed CPR and resuscitated Prude, but he had already been deprived of oxygen for too long and was rendered brain dead.
“Again, a black man dead after an interaction with the police,” New York State Assembly Member Demond Meeks said on Twitter after James’s announcement. “Again, a system that finds the police officers not responsible for the actions that led to his death. I’m disgusted by this predictable result. Verdicts like these endorse police brutality, and unchecked racial and implicit bias housed within police departments.”
Since Prude’s death, New York state lawmakers have introduced a bill called “Daniel’s Law” that would send health professionals to respond to mental health and substance use crises instead of police officers. Meeks said the lack of charges for Prude’s death once again shows that “police are not qualified to respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.”
“I will fight for the passage of Daniel’s Law,” Meeks said. “I will fight for the investment in preventive programs and initiatives that cause the hurt within our city.”
Leading members of the Rochester Police Department and city officials worked to keep Prude’s death under wraps for as long as they could: As the nation reeled from the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, emails show that police commanders and lawyers for the city agreed to delay the release of body camera video depicting Prude’s death. They managed to stall for more than four months before complying with open records laws and releasing the footage to the Prude family’s attorney, who shared it with the press a few weeks later.
The footage of American police once again suffocating a Black man quickly spread, prompted protests in Rochester and beyond, and led to the firing of Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and the resignations of several members of the police department’s command staff. It also raised questions about what exactly Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren knew about the incident and when.
Warren has said she first saw the footage on Aug. 4. But it wasn’t until almost a full month later, after Prude’s family made the footage public, that Warren decided to suspend the officers involved in Prude’s death. Warren has maintained that police downplayed the incident to her and made it sound as though Prude died of a drug overdose.
Police reform activists and police union leaders alike called for Warren to resign after Prude’s killing and the city’s handling of it. Since then, Rochester police have also drawn national scrutiny for handcuffing a 10-year-old child during a traffic stop and pepper-spraying a distressed 9-year-old girl.
Now Warren is running for re-election, and has released a proposal to reform the police department. (All New York cities are required to do so, per an executive order from Governor Andrew Cuomo, in order to continue receiving certain state funding.) But advocates say the proposal falls short of the sort of changes they hoped to see and even still allows chokeholds at a time when cities across the country have banned the practice.
It includes a goal of reducing the Rochester Police Department’s head count “within the next 5-10 years,” including by identifying tasks handled by uniformed officers that could be performed by civilians instead. Rochester has more police officers per capita than other similarly sized cities, with 700 sworn officers for a city of about 200,000. Across the country, cities like Austin, Texas, and Berkeley, California, have already passed proposals to civilianize certain police functions, like traffic enforcement and forensics.
“When I think of the five- to 10-year mark, I think of the people who are harmed today, whose lives are at risk,” Stanley Martin, an organizer with Free the People Roc, told The Appeal earlier this month. “It’s unbelievable. A 9 year-old got pepper-sprayed by a bunch of white police officers in her neighborhood and the response is, ‘OK, we’ll make changes in five- to 10-years.’ That’s not enough.”