City of Rochester ‘knowingly suppressed’ Daniel Prude’s death, new report says

Daniel Prude

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — In a new 84-page report into the City of Rochester’s handling of the Daniel Prude case, the special investigator hired by Rochester City Council said key city officials knowingly suppressed information.

Special investigator, attorney Andrew Celli, released a statement on his findings Friday:

Did officials of City government suppress information about the arrest and death of Daniel Prude between March 23, 2020, when the arrest occurred, and September 2, 2020, when the Prude family publicly released body-worn camera footage of the incident?

The straightforward answer is yes. The investigation revealed no explanation that fully accounts for the more than four-month delay between the death of an unarmed man at the hands of Rochester police, and public disclosure of the facts and circumstances under which the death occurred — other than a decision or series of decisions not to make such disclosure.

The report said the ultimate decision to not disclose the death of Prude to the public was that of Mayor Lovely Warren. However he went on to say the responsibility for the delay wasn’t just hers.

“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. But Mayor Warren alone is not responsible for the suppression of the circumstances of the Prude Arrest and Mr. Prude’s death.”

Key Report findings

The investigation found that four Rochester officials were aware of what transpired long before any information was disclosed to the public:

“By mid-April 2020, four key officials in Rochester City government—Mayor Warren, then Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, Corporation Counsel Timothy Curtin, and Communications Director Justin Roj—had learned that RPD officers had physically restrained Daniel Prude during the course of an arrest on March 23, 2020; that the restraint had caused Mr. Prude’s death; and that the officers were the subjects of a criminal investigation. None of this was disclosed to the public before the Prude family’s September 2 news conference.”

The report says Singletary downplayed the events that transpired to city officials:

“In his internal communications with the Mayor, the Law Department, and the Communications Bureau in April 2020, Chief Singletary disclosed but consistently deemphasized the role of police restraints in the death of Daniel Prude, and his statements did not capture the disturbing tenor of the entire encounter. Chief Singletary’s characterization of the Prude Arrest likely impacted how the City officials he informed of the matter viewed what had occurred. In early August, Corporation Counsel Curtin actively discouraged Mayor Warren from publicly disclosing the Arrest after she viewed the BWC footage for the first time, citing reasons that were factually incorrect, legally without basis, or both. And Councilmember Mary Lupien, who learned of the Prude Arrest in July from an attorney for the Prude family, elected not to speak publicly or alert City officials about the matter.

The report says the delayed release of body worn camera footage was delayed by several factors, and not all because of the city’s response. FOIL requests and HIPAA release forms also contributed to the monthslong delay.

However, the report also says some oft he delay in disclosing the footage was because of city officials:

At least some of the delay in the disclosure of the BWC footage of the Prude Arrest is attributable to the Law Department’s effort to accommodate a request by senior officials at the RPD, including Chief Singletary, to withhold the BWC footage for fear that its release might cause civil unrest and violence in the wake of the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Furthermore, the investigation revealed that some of the statements by Warren, Singletary and Curtin on September 2 — the day details of Prude’s death became public for the first time — were not true, including:

  • Office of the attorney general’s investigation was not a basis to deny the FOIL request
  • Office of the attorney general did not request that the city deny the FOIL request
  • Curtin’s statement about the aforementioned office of the attorney general’s request were not true
  • Curtin’s statement that the office of the attorney general’s investigation prevented the city from disciplining the officers was not true

In regards to claims that the office of the attorney general (OAG) made any of the aforementioned requests, the special investigator found:

“There is no possibility that the OAG conveyed any ‘instructions’ or a ‘request’ to the City to refrain from publicly disclosing the facts and circumstance of the Prude Arrest and Mr. Prude’s death earlier than June 4, or even that City officials could have believed that it had.”

The investigator said Mayor Warren “is entitled to rely in good faith” of the advice of the city’s legal counsel, which the mayor “appeared” to do, but the report also says the mayor still could have made, or authorized a public statement without that counsel between March 23 and August 4.

To be sure, a mayor is entitled to rely in good faith upon the legal advice provided to her by her city’s corporation counsel. Here, it appears that Mayor Warren did just that. But Mr. Curtin did not convey to Mayor Warren the incorrect information that the OAG had instructed or requested that the City refrain from making public statements until August 4. Mayor Warren’s acceptance of that information in early August and later does not explain the failure of the Mayor to make or authorize a public statement between March 23 and August 4.

Mayor Warren testified that, while she wanted to disclose the Prude Arrest and death publicly during the period August 4 to September 2, she affirmatively decided not to do so based on Mr. Curtin’s advice.151 The other attendees at the August 4 meetings — including Chief Singletary — all testified that Mayor Warren clearly expressed her desire to issue a public statement on that occasion, and that she appeared sincere in stating that she wanted to provide this information to the public at that time. Mayor Warren testified that, despite her desire to speak out on the matter, she accepted Mr. Curtin’s representations and legal advice in good faith and decided not to disclose the Prude Arrest and death after August 4 primarily on that basis.

Despite the delayed released of information pertaining to this now-high profile incident, the special investigator said this is a policy and political judgement, not a legal one.

“It is important to note that the decision whether to inform the public of a significant event by way of an announcement or other form of notification is a policy judgment, and a political one, not a legal one. There are no written rules or standards in Rochester that govern the conduct of the Mayor, members of the City Council, or high appointed officials like the Chief of Police or the Corporation Counsel in these matters. Accordingly, 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. The judges of that question are the citizens of the City of Rochester and the public at large.”

Mayor Warren released a statement on the report Friday afternoon:

“I welcome today’s 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. By creating our Person In Crisis teams, calling for the right to fire officers for cause, and reforming our FOIL and Body-Worn Camera processes, we are doing the work this moment demands.

Now, we must go even further and honor Daniel Prude by fully addressing our challenges regarding policing, mental health treatment and systemic inequality. I remain committed to doing this work along with City Council. It lies at the heart of the Equity and Recovery Agenda and the Executive Order 203 reforms I have proposed. Ultimately, we will prevent tragedies by ensuring that every person’s life is valued and has the opportunity to reach its fullest potential. We can achieve this by providing safe and quality housing, a quality education, and a job that provides dignity. By doing so, we will create a Rochester that provides equity and opportunity for everyone.”

The attorney representing former Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary released a statement Friday evening:

We are reviewing both the Report and all the source documents that have been disclosed today.
We note that some source documents have been withheld and we request that City Council
promptly release these remaining documents to the public. When we conclude our review, we
expect to release a full statement.

What is clear from our first review? Chief Singletary was truthful in his statements to Mayor
Warren and to other City Administration officials. He never participated in any cover up nor did
he intentionally downplay the circumstances of surrounding Mr. Prude’s death. When asked by
the Mayor to lie, he declined and he announced his retirement the next day.

Every sworn statement made by Former Chief Singletary in his Notice of Claim filed on
December 3, 2020 and during his public testimony on February 5, 2021 has been the truthful.

When reviewing the Body Worn Camera footage last March, Chief Singletary made the
preliminary determination that there was no evidence rising to probable cause to believe that
crimes had been committed during Mr. Prude’s mental hygiene arrest. This preliminary
determination was thoroughly reviewed by a state grand jury empaneled by the Attorney General
of our state which made its final determination last month and found no probable cause based on
the evidence to support the filing of criminal charges.

Carrie Cohen, special independent counsel to the City of Rochester, challenged some of the findings from the report in a statement Friday:

I have served as Special Independent Counsel to the City of Rochester administration in connection with the City Council’s investigation into the City’s response to Daniel Prude’s death.  As such, I attended, or read the transcripts of, every deposition taken by the City Council’s Special Independent Counsel and had access to essentially the same evidence as Mr. Celli and team in this matter.

Having reviewed the City Council’s Special Independent Counsel’s report upon its release this morning, it is most notable that the City Council’s Special Counsel did not find any evidence that any City employee, outside of former Police Chief Singletary, acted with ill-intent to hide or cover-up the circumstances related to the death of Mr. Prude or to intentionally deceive the public in any way.  The elected officials and public servants involved in this matter made their best efforts to make decisions in real time based on the information that was made available to them and that, according to the City Council’s Special Counsel, was intentionally obscured by former Police Chief Singletary.

There is one conclusion in the report, however, to which I am compelled to respond: the false assertion that Mayor Warren made untrue statements to the public regarding Mr. Prude’s death. At all times, Mayor Warren spoke based on the facts known to her at the time and to the extent those facts were misleading in any way, that is a direct result of the misleading way in which former Chief Singletary relayed information to the Mayor. 

Lastly, the City already has put in place a number of policy reforms and initiatives to hopefully improve internal communications and specifically address some of the issues identified in the report.  It is my sincere hope that the City continues to learn and heal and that Mr. Prude’s family continues to be blessed by his memory.””

A statement from Rochester City Councilmember, and Rochester mayoral candidate, Malik Evans:

“I want to thank Attorney Andrew Celli for his independent investigatory report relating to the death of Daniel Prude. At a time when many in the community have lost faith in government, unfortunately this report did little to restore confidence. The report makes clear that this tragedy was compounded by the fact information related to Daniel Prude’s death was not handled in an open and transparent manner. I share the community’s frustration that there was almost a five-month delay before they and all City Council Members received any information on this tragedy. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with the Prude Family, and it is my hope that together we can work to rebuild trust and transparency in government. This starts with always leveling with the community during good times and bad.”

News 8 has reached out to other City of Rochester officials involved in the report who have not immediately returned a request for comment.

Backstory

Prude, a 41-year-old Black man from Chicago, died after an encounter with Rochester police back in March, but news of the incident just came to light on September 2. Police worn body camera footage of the incident showed officers restraining a handcuffed Prude, who was naked with a spit hood over his head, before he ultimately went unconscious.

The autopsy report from the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled the death of Prude a homicide. The report said Prude’s cause of death includes “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” The report also showed that Prude also had a small amount of PCP in his system at the time of the encounter with police, which could explain his erratic behavior.

A federal civil lawsuit filed from the Prude family against the City of Rochester alleges there was an internal cover-up

The Rochester police officers involved in the death of Daniel Prude will not face charges after a grand jury elected not to indict. The minutes of the grand jury testimony will be released with redactions after a judge approved the attorney general’s request to do so.

Former Rochester Police Chief La’Ron Singletary’s deposition in February was part of an independent investigation initiated by Rochester City Council continues to see if there was indeed a cover-up. That investigation is looking into City Hall, the Rochester Police Department and City Council itself.

Aside from Singletary, several other high-ranking members within the RPD’s command staff have also announced retirements, in a major leadership shake-up for the city’s police department.

Protests sparked following the news of Prude’s death in the city of Rochester throughout the month of September. Some demonstrations saw violent clashes between protesters and police.

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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