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Police Violence Puts the Heat on Rochester Mayor as She Seeks a Third Term

Months after footage emerged of officers fatally suffocating Daniel Prude, police were caught on video pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl. Advocates say the incident highlights the shortcomings of Mayor Lovely Warren’s crisis response team.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren addresses members of the media on Sept. 6, 2020.
(Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Police Violence Puts the Heat on Rochester Mayor as She Seeks a Third Term

Months after footage emerged of officers fatally suffocating Daniel Prude, police were caught on video pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl. Advocates say the incident highlights the shortcomings of Mayor Lovely Warren’s crisis response team.

In Lovely Warren’s past year as mayor of Rochester, New York, members of the city’s police department have handcuffed a 10-year-old child during a traffic stop, pepper-sprayed a distressed 9-year-old girl, and pushed a man’s head into the pavement until he stopped breathing then tried to cover it up.

Now, Warren is running for a third term, despite calls for her resignation and an indictment for two felony campaign finance charges hanging over her head. Her only challenger so far for the June primary is Rochester City Councilmember Malik Evans, who is campaigning on a promise to “build bridges” and isn’t promising to be that different from Warren when it comes to reining in the police department. The last day to file to enter the primary is March 25.

The high-profile incidents of police brutality have brought nationwide scrutiny to the upstate New York city of about 200,000 and ignited calls to cut the police department’s budget and reinvest that money in public safety alternatives, like violence prevention initiatives and a fully funded crisis response team independent from the department. 

Warren has previously opposed shifting resources away from the police department. Though she launched a crisis intervention system for people experiencing mental health issues after Daniel Prude’s death at the hands of police in March, advocates say its implementation has been flawed and needs more funding. 

Asked via email if he supports expanding mental health crisis response teams and shrinking the size, budget, and/or responsibilities of the Rochester Police Department, Malik said “generally yes,” but said he needed more time to elaborate further. He did not provide specifics when given a few more days to respond. Warren did not respond to emails seeking clarification on her stances regarding the same questions.

One of the most significant changes Rochester’s next mayor could make to improve public safety would be to shrink the police department’s budget, responsibilities, and head count, and reinvest that money in mental health programs and an independent crisis intervention team, said Stanley Martin, a parole and re-entry coordinator for VOCAL-NY and an organizer with Free the People Roc. “There’s no way we’re going to be able to fully fund mental health assistance with the [economic] fallout from COVID without defunding the police.”

Warren is “running again so she wants to sound like she’s making these changes,” Martin said, “but she’s been in office for almost eight years and we haven’t seen any substantive changes during her tenure. Even recently she was fighting to build another police station in a poor neighborhood.”

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 his brother, Daniel, 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. The Monroe County medical examiner’s office determined Prude’s death was a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

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 resignations of several members of the police department’s command staff. It also raised questions about what exactly Mayor 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. She has said she did not know what really happened on the night of Prude’s death until Aug. 4.

But even after the footage came to light, Warren continued to defend Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, stating that “he handled it the way he needed to handle it internally.” Yet about two weeks after the footage came out—after Singletary had already announced his resignation—Warren fired him. Singletary has claimed Warren told him to lie about what city officials knew and recently testified that he told Warren what happened, but she never asked to see the video. Other investigations into Prude’s death are ongoing.

Following Prude’s death, two New York state lawmakers have sponsored a bill called “Daniel’s Law” that would send health professionals to respond to mental health and substance use crises instead of police officers.

Police reform activists and police union leaders alike called for Warren to resign after the police killing of Daniel Prude and the city’s handling of it. Instead, Warren has pledged to reform the police department and has moved crisis intervention out of the department.

But last month, Rochester once again drew national scrutiny when video of police officers handcuffing and pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl emerged. On Jan. 29, officers responded to a family disturbance call. When they arrived, the girl’s mother, who had made the call, said her daughter had threatened to harm herself and had run out of the house, according to Rochester Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson. 

Video shows a police officer running after the 9-year-old, then grabbing her by the arm. While the officer and the girl are talking, the girl’s mother returns and confronts her daughter, prompting her daughter to attempt to run away again. The officer grips her so she cannot flee, then forces her to the snow-covered ground and handcuffs the child as she screams out for her father.

Officers can be seen trying to force her into the back of a patrol car, but the girl continues to scream and cry for her father. By this time, six police vehicles have arrived and at least seven officers are present. At one point, an officer tells her she is acting like a child, to which she responds, “I am a child!”

Police scream at her to stand up and get in the vehicle properly. “Just spray her at this point,” one officer says. Another sprays the girl in the eyes as she shrieks in pain. “Unbelievable,” an officer mutters as they finally get the child in the car.

Warren has said the video shows “we need to do more in support of our children and families” and has suspended three of the seven officers involved in the incident. But advocates say the incident highlights the shortcomings of Warren’s crisis response team.

In January, the city launched a Person in Crisis Team, which is composed of 14 people who will respond to nonviolent mental health calls and calls involving substance use issues. The pilot program is set to run through June and has received about $660,000 in funding. People can call 911 or 211 to get the team.

But the city has said that officers responded because the girl’s mother had called 911 to report that her boyfriend had allegedly stolen her car. As a result, the city says, dispatchers did not divert the call to the Person in Crisis Team, and behavioral health professionals were not sent. But even when the girl’s mother told police her daughter was suicidal, police did not call for mental health assistance instead. There is currently no system in place to send the Person in Crisis Team to a call answered by the police.

“I think it just points to a lack of funding and follow-through on the program,” said Martin “They’re getting $660,000. … So giving a program that’s meant to adequately address all these crises in our community just that amount doesn’t cut it.”

A week after the latest incident of police brutality in Rochester, Warren 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,” said Martin. “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.”