The seven Rochester, N.Y., police officers suspended this week after the release of a video showing a hood being placed on a Black man in the throes of a mental health crisis failed to use decades-old tactics designed to bring unstable people safely into custody, mental health and police training experts said. The head of the city’s police union said Friday the officers were following protocol.
Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man from Chicago, died March 30, a week after being detained by Rochester police. The video shows that police handcuffed Prude and covered his head with a “spit hood,” a device meant to protect police from bodily fluids. The video then shows officers forcing Prude’s head and chest onto the pavement. The incident was not made public until Wednesday, after a Prude family attorney released the video.
That autopsy report from the Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Prude’s death a homicide involving “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”
Mental health experts, who help train police officers in ways to de-escalate such encounters, said the officers should have maintained their distance from Prude while they calmly talked to him, asking how they could be of assistance. Handcuffs and the hood served to escalate the tension and fear, they said, causing Prude to tell the officers, “You’re trying to kill me.”
Debbie F. Plotnick, a vice president at Mental Health America, said instead of shouting orders, officers should ask, “How can I help you?” They should also not order a person having a mental health crisis to “calm down,” as officers repeatedly did with Prude, whose autopsy said he had the drug PCP in his system.
As for the handcuffs, Plotnick said, “They are already afraid. It also criminalizes people with a mental health condition.”
Michael Mazzeo, who heads the Locust Club, the city’s police union that represents more than 700 officers, said officers were following guidelines established by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services when they kept Prude, who was naked, handcuffed on chilly, damp cement. Mazzeo said the “spit hood” was used because Prude had claimed to be infected with the novel coronavirus and had spit at the officers.
Mazzeo said the officers were involved in a mandated state training about a month before the incident with Prude.
“They did exactly what they were trained on, and exactly what the training module was,” Mazzeo said. “It was step-by-step, right-to-the-second, what these officers did.”
In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Division of Criminal Justice Services said “state law requires every local police department” in New York “to have its own use of force policy that is consistent with a state-issued model policy on the topic.” But the agency’s only role in training is to set “minimal” standards that must be taught to recruits when they join the force.
Mazzeo also alleged that the widely circulated video showing Prude pleading for his life was heavily edited. Mazzeo said he is confident that the seven officers, who were suspended with pay on Thursday, will be cleared of all wrongdoing once New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) completes her review of the matter.
“We believe, more than believe, we know, there is a substantial amount of information to adequately determine what the circumstances are surrounding the death of Daniel Prude,” Mazzeo said. “You look at that video, and then you also have to take so much encompassing information and placing that video in the context that it has to be.”
Lawyers for Prude’s family did not return requests for comment.
Specialized police training that teaches officers tactics to safely apprehend people in a mental health crisis have been available since the late 1980s — typically referred to as Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training.
However, such training often ranks low among the priorities of a department. While recruits typically spend nearly 60 hours learning to handle a gun, according to a 2015 survey by the Police Executive Research Forum, they receive only eight hours of training to de-escalate tense situations and eight hours learning strategies for handling the mentally ill.
Rochester Police Department spokeswoman Jacqueline Shuman said it has such a team but declined to say whether any of the officers involved with Prude’s fatal apprehension are on it. The department also would not say how many officers are on the team, nor would they answer questions about the extent of their training.
Shuman also declined to answers questions about Prude’s death in custody, because this is “still a very active investigation.”
Ron Bruno, a 25-year police veteran and executive director of CIT International, said the training teaches officers to “slow everything down,” “build rapport” and communicate as long as possible with the individual with the goal of getting them to voluntary comply with being taken for a mental health evaluation.
However, he said the best way for departments to have success with the training is to develop a full-fledged CIT program, which involves teaming up and responding to 911 distress calls with local mental health care experts.
Rochester police would not respond to questions about whether they have such a program.
Severe budget cuts for psychiatric services — by as much as 30 percent in some states in recent years — have created a vacuum that local police are increasingly asked to fill.
Mazzeo referenced how New York has shut down many of its mental health institutions, which he said has strained police officers.
“They put people out on the street, and who is one of the only agencies to deal with them — it’s the police,” he said. “We definitely need changes.”
Plotnick said the number of people who are experiencing mental health problems is skyrocketing right now due to the spread of the coronavirus and the isolation and stress that comes with it.
At the time of the arrest, Rochester officials have said that Prude was suffering from a mental health breakdown. On the evening of March 22, before his early-morning arrest, authorities had responded to a separate police call involving Prude. He was taken to the University of Rochester Medical Center, the Democrat & Chronicle newspaper reported. But the hospital released him.
The University of Rochester Medical Center is now conducting an internal review of Prude’s case, the Democrat & Chronicle reported.
Instead of blaming the officers, Mazzeo said Prude’s death highlights the need for more aggressive reform of New York’s mental health system, including additional resources to pair trained counselors with law enforcement officials.
“If there is a need to change things, the way things are done, let’s change them,” Mazzeo said. “But an officer does not have the ability to go on or disregard what they are mandated to do, or what they are trained to do.”
According to a database of fatal police shootings maintained by The Washington Post, of the 5,400 people shot and killed by police nationwide over the past five years, about 1 in 4 were in mental distress. White people represented the largest number of such deaths, with a total of 732, followed by 190 who were Black, 160 who were Hispanic with the remainder being Asian, Native American or individuals whose race wasn’t known. The database also shows that often police are summoned to the scene by family members seeking assistance, as was the case with Prude, whose brother called 911 for help.
Meanwhile, New York officials continued to point fingers on Friday for who was to blame for body-camera footage of Prude’s arrest not being released to the public sooner.
At a news conference, Rochester City Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin and City Attorney Stephanie Prince said they had advised Mayor Lovely A. Warren (D) on June 4 that the city should not to release the video or any information about the case publicly. Curtin and Prince said the recommendation followed a meeting that day with an assistant state attorney general, whose office had been investigating Prude’s death since April.
Prince said the assistant attorney general told her that “in matters like this” the office “preferred that material not be released to the public if that interferes with their investigation” and that the assistant attorney general referenced the body-camera footage.
In a statement, the attorney general’s office strongly denied it ever urged that information be withheld by the city.
“There was never a request from the Attorney General’s Office to the city of Rochester Corporation Counsel to withhold information about the events surrounding the death of Daniel Prude, plain and simple,” the statement said.
On Thursday, Warren told the media that she only learned of the contents of the video on Aug. 4, when the city complied with a public information request that had been submitted by Prude’s family.
But Curtin said Friday that the city has known for weeks that Prude’s family was planning to file a lawsuit against the city. Curtin said he approached the family in early August to see if they were interested in settling the case before a lawsuit was filed.
“We approached the family’s attorneys,” Curtin said. “We contacted them to see if it would be appropriate to have settlement discussions before they filed their lawsuit.”
Mitch Gruber, a member of the Rochester City Council, said the inconsistent statements from top city leaders has left him and other members of the nine-member council frustrated and angered.
“As soon as this tragedy happened, there should have been transparency and accountability meted out, and there wasn’t that,” said Gruber (D), adding he only learned about the details of Prude’s arrest this week. “We need to figure out who knew what and when.”
Julie Tate and Steven Rich contributed to this report.