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No officers indicted in death of Daniel Prude, a Black man pinned and hooded during mental crisis

New York Attorney General Letitia James. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
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Police officers will not face charges in the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man pinned to the ground last year while handcuffed, hooded and in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Announcing Tuesday that a grand jury declined to indict, New York Attorney General Letitia James said she was disappointed in the outcome of the case that thrust Rochester, N.Y., into the national spotlight last fall, after Prude’s family released graphic footage of his arrest following a months-long legal battle to make key records public.

“The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold law enforcement accountable for the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans,” James said Tuesday at a news conference, where she pointed to other high-profile deaths in custody that set off protests and calls for criminal consequences last year. One of those cases, of an officer charged with murder in the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, will soon go to trial in another test of prosecutors’ vows to seek justice.

“History has unfortunately repeated itself again in the case of Daniel Prude,” James said, denouncing “a system that at its core is broken.”

Prude’s death in March — and officials’ attempts to keep footage from the public eye — fueled already intense scrutiny of police officers’ treatment of Black Americans and their handling of mental health calls. A medical examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,” and experts say officers neglected to use known tactics for helping people in crisis while arresting the 41-year-old man.

“You’re trying to kill me!” Prude said in the video of his arrest. He died a week later.

However, experts found no evidence of trauma from a blocking of Prude’s windpipe or a blood vessel, according to a detailed report released Tuesday by James’s office. One concluded that PCP in Prude’s system made him vulnerable to cardiac arrest, which cut off oxygen to his brain. Another expert assessed officers’ pinning techniques as reasonable.

Medical responders “appeared to lack urgency” when they arrived on the scene, the report said, and an expert said officers should have rolled Prude over after he vomited.

The case received little attention until the release last fall of body-camera footage capturing how the call for aid from Prude’s family devolved. Discussing their reasons for delaying the video’s release in emails last summer, city officials referenced recent police killings around the country and said they did not want Prude’s death to spur “violent blowback.”

“I’m wondering if we shouldn’t hold back on this for a little while considering what is going on around the country,” a police lieutenant wrote in one email. Officials also suggested citing an “open” investigation to deny the Prude family’s public records request and raised concerns about Prude’s medical privacy.

“Can we deny/delay?” a top city attorney wrote in another message, which was eventually released to the public in the furor over Prude’s case.

Responding Tuesday to the no-charge decision, Prude family attorney Elliot Shields said Prude’s loved ones are “baffled and confused as to how this decision was reached.”

“And the only explanation is that the grand jury didn’t want to hold these officers accountable, but instead they pointed the finger at the city,” he said.

Officers argue that they were simply following policies implemented by city leadership. “Let’s not indict a police officer at the lowest level so the public feels or the family feels that there is some semblance of justice,” Michael Mazzeo, president of the local police association, told The Washington Post last year.

The seven officers involved — Josiah Harris, Michael Magri, Paul Ricotta, Francisco Santiago, Andrew Specksgoor, Troy Taladay and Mark Vaughn — were suspended and remain on leave while an internal investigation is pending, according to the police department.

The long-delayed video of Prude’s arrest roiled Rochester with protests, leading officials to open multiple investigations and triggering the suspensions of the officers. The incident also cost the Rochester police chief his job. Local leaders urged reforms, and the city this year launched the pilot of a “person in crisis” team meant to replace law enforcement on emergency calls that involve mental health and substance abuse issues.

James on Tuesday called for better training for law enforcement and to seek alternatives to the “spit sock” used to hood Prude, among other changes.

Several Justice Department officials said in a statement that they would review the attorney general’s report and other materials and “determine whether any further federal response is warranted.”

Seven police officers were suspended in Rochester, N.Y., after a video showed police officers placing a hood on Daniel Prude, who later died. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said in a statement Tuesday that she was “proud of the progress we’re making and of [Rochester Police] Officers for being open to learning alternative methods and working together towards a common goal of keeping this from happening again.”

Police urged people to remain peaceful as night fell and crowds marched in protest. Some climbed over barricades by a police station and faced off with officers there, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

Law enforcement officials in Rochester were criticized last year for their response to demonstrations that grew destructive and violent at times. Officers were hospitalized with cuts, swelling and burns from “projectiles and incendiary devices,” officials said, and police fired pepper balls and tear gas. Some people threw tables and broke glass at restaurants.

Earlier Tuesday, the Rochester City Council wrote to the police chief asking her to immediately ban the use of tear gas and stun grenades on protesters.

Rochester police came under renewed fire earlier this month after video showed officers pepper-spraying a 9-year-old Black girl. Announcing the suspension of the officers involved, Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren (D) called the incident “simply horrible” and said it “has rightly outraged all of our community.”

James said she will meet with the 9-year-old and her family and is looking at the case.