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Protesters and police have the same message for the Rochester mayor: Resign

Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren addresses members of the media during a press conference related to the ongoing protest in Rochester, N.Y.
Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren addresses members of the media during a press conference related to the ongoing protest in Rochester, N.Y. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Mayor Lovely A. Warren has always branded herself as a reformer, pushing to create a police accountability board and scrapping an unpopular red-light camera program because she believed it unfairly saddled the poor with tickets they could not afford to pay.

But over the past week, the mayor of New York’s third-most-populous city has found herself in the throes of a political crisis after police body camera footage was made public showing a hood being placed on the head of Daniel Prude, a Black man having a mental health crisis, in March. He died a week later.

The city’s police chief and other high-ranking department officials are leaving their jobs amid the public outcry. Warren now has the chance to remake her police department, but she must do so after distancing herself from police leadership and leaving questions about her involvement with the case unanswered. Now, the police union and activists aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement have the same message for her: Resign.

Late in the evening on Sept. 4, protesters took to the streets of Rochester, N.Y., calling for justice for Daniel T. Prude. (Video: The Washington Post)

Warren, 43, is the first African American woman to lead Rochester, a diverse working-class city where 40 percent of residents are Black. But after more than a week of chaos here on the southern shores of Lake Ontario, Warren has been thrust into the nation’s cultural battles over policing. She joins Black female mayors across the country who are now at the forefront of leading in an increasingly polarized nation. They have been forced to respond to, and defuse, the nation’s boiling tensions over police accountability and protests that have sometimes turned violent, while showing support for the racial justice movement and talking about the challenge of being a Black woman watching Black people die at the hands of police.

“My heart is with the family of Daniel Prude,” Warren said Sept. 3. “As a mayor, mother, sister, daughter and as a Black woman, I am filled with grief and anger at myself for all of the failures that led to his death.”

Warren finds herself wedged between the demands of young, liberal protesters demanding sweeping change and the realities of governing, including managing often conservative police officers who form the backbone of the city workforce. Warren has voiced support for many of the protesters’ demands and said her police chief should not be fired before he resigned. She declined a request for an interview.

“The mayors, particularly African American female mayors, are in a very adverse situation because you don’t get the benefit of the doubt from either side,” said Karen Freeman-Wilson, who is Black and served as the mayor of Gary, Ind., from 2012 to 2019.

Although Black mayors such as Muriel E. Bowser (D) in Washington, D.C., and Keisha Lance Bottoms (D) in Atlanta have deftly navigated around their critics on both the right and the left, the crisis now facing Warren appears far more volatile.

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Among local activists, there has been widespread skepticism of Warren’s claim that she did not know about how Prude died or see the video until early August, when the city responded to a public information request from a lawyer who represented Prude’s brother. Prude was naked and handcuffed in the video, which shows officers forcing Prude’s head and chest onto the pavement on March 23. He died March 30.

Warren still has not answered many questions about her involvement in the case, including why she suspended seven police officers only after the video became public. With her public support dwindling, Warren is now trying to make amends to her constituents.

“At this point we are just feeling betrayed and traumatized by a Black woman being one of the main oppressors of the Black community,” said Stanley Martin, a Black protest organizer with Free the People ROC.

The debate about Warren’s leadership in the Prude case largely comes down to what did she know and when after the Monroe County Medical Examiner ruled Prude’s death a homicide on April 16. His autopsy showed he died as a result of “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” The report also said Prude had PCP in his system. Warren said the police told her Prude died of a drug overdose.

The Monroe County district attorney passed the case on to the New York attorney general the day Prude’s death was ruled a homicide. The district attorney said the referral was mandated by a 2015 gubernatorial order.

But by early June, top legal advisers to Warren and the city knew about the existence of the body camera footage. City lawyers consulted with an assistant state attorney general about whether to release the footage publicly; they said the attorney general’s office advised them not to do so while Prude’s death was under investigation. The attorney general’s office has said there was no recommendation to withhold information.

The city lawyers said they relayed the recommendation to Warren. The attorneys admitted they approached a lawyer for Prude’s family in early August to see if the family had an interest in settling the case before a lawsuit was filed. Warren said she did not see the video until Aug. 4. She suspended seven police officers Sept. 3, a day after Prude’s family released the video publicly.

Warren, who was an attorney before being elected mayor in 2013, is also watching her relationship with Rochester police officers erode.

On Tuesday, police chief La’Ron Singletary and the rest of the department’s command staff stepped down, leaving Warren to stand solo as the public face of the scandal. The city council later announced it was hiring a prominent New York City-based law firm to conduct an “independent review and investigation into the internal processes that occurred” between the time officers first made contact with Prude and when the video of the encounter became public.

The tensions between Warren and the leaders of the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union representing more than 700 officers, have been especially intense.

After Singletary announced he will retire at the end of this month, Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo demanded Warren also step aside, saying she can no longer keep the community safe. He later said Warren had made tactical decisions for the police department, though he did not specify what they were.

“The confidence of the people and of our members has been critically lost,” Mazzeo said.

Warren responded with a blistering assault on Mazzeo, stating both he and the officers involved in Prude’s death engage in “archaic policing.”

“For 30 years, the problem with policing in Rochester are cops like Mike Mazzeo that watch the video of Daniel Prude’s death and see nothing wrong,” Warren said in a statement.

Freeman-Wilson, now the president of the Chicago Urban League, said it is particularly hard for Black female mayors to “navigate the space between” emboldened liberal activists and other more rigid components of a city’s political sphere, including police unions. The activists, Freeman-Wilson said, increasingly expect that a Black female executive will immediately draw upon her own experiences battling racial injustice, and her own history representing “the first of their class” to quickly push through desired changes.

At the same time, she said, some leaders of established groups can seem dismissive of women in power.

“They expect us to toe the line,” Freeman-Wilson said.

But William P. Lightfoot, a Washington attorney and top political adviser to Bowser, noted most big-city mayors, regardless of their race or gender, are facing similar management and governing hurdles this year.

He noted that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler (D), both of whom are White, are also struggling to juggle criticisms from both activists and police unions. There are simply more Black female mayors than there have been in the past, Lightfoot said. Women of color currently serve as mayors in 10 of the nation’s 100 largest cities — which do not include Rochester — while there was only one 20 years ago, according the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University.

“This is the toughest time in the history of the country to be the mayor of a city,” said Lightfoot, who was Bowser’s campaign chairman. “We have a pandemic going on that is killing people. We have an economy that has collapsed where our downtowns are deserted, and we have the emotion tied to protests of social justice and there is violence associated with that, and all of those forces are coming into play regardless of race.”

Still, the crises facing urban America this year present a generational opportunity for mayors to push for restructuring, even if that means they are not going to make everybody happy, said Candis Watts Smith, an associate professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Penn State.

“Activists push us to dream bigger and to dream broader,” Watts Smith said.

With a vacant command staff, observers said Warren might have a chance to change policing in the city.

A key component of any overhaul of the Rochester police force will also probably involve revamping how the department responds to calls involving people who are suspected of suffering from a mental health or substance abuse issue, experts said. Mental health and police training experts said police in Prude’s case failed to use decades-old tactics designed to bring unstable people into custody.

Experts say Rochester police failed to use tactics designed to help those in crisis as union defends officers involved in death of Black man

City council members are already pushing for police to pair up with trained mental health professionals when responding to 911 calls. Warren, in the wake of Prude’s death, has promised to revamp the way crisis calls are handled in Rochester.

The mayor has proposed a plan to shift funding and current crisis intervention responsibilities from the police to a non-police response team that will respond to mental health calls, spokesman Justin Roj said.

“Calls will triage by 911, and the appropriate resource will be dispatched,” he said.

Former Rochester officials said the city is now mired in distrust.

“There is no training in the world that tells you to put three bodies on top of a prone, naked, unarmed man face down who is an emotionally disturbed person on drugs,” said former Rochester corporation counsel Linda Kingsley, who will serve as a pro bono adviser to the city council investigation.

Kingsley, who served under former Rochester mayor William Johnson for more than a decade, believes the public timeline has led people to lose trust in Warren.

“Right now the distrust in the community, particularly with the young people, is just devastating,” she said.

Johnson, 78, said Warren faces “a complicated picture” but must step up to try to ease tensions and change the hearts of her harshest critics.

“You need to sit there, and you need to give some indication that you are sincerely committed to making changes,” Johnson said.

In June, Warren appointed Johnson, the city’s first Black mayor, to a commission created to address racial injustices in response to George Floyd’s death and the national movement it sparked.

The idea that Floyd was the inspiration for the Rochester-based investigative body months after Prude quietly died after being in police custody here “was so ironic because we had our own [Floyd] situation, and nobody ever acknowledged that it ever existed,” Johnson said.

The commission was blindsided by Prude’s case, he said, as were the residents who gather and march the streets nightly.

“I sat in her chair for 12 years,” Johnson said of Warren. “You better know what the police department is doing.”

Correction: A previous version of this article said that White residents make up a plurality of the population in Rochester. That is no longer the case.

Jacobs and Libonati reported from Rochester. Craig reported from Washington. Mark Berman in Washington contributed to this report.