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Opinion The horrifying case of Daniel Prude raises troubling issues about Rochester’s mayor and police force

Daniel Prude, right, with his brother Joe and sister-in-law Valerie.
Daniel Prude, right, with his brother Joe and sister-in-law Valerie. (Prude family photo/AFP/Getty Images)
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WAS IT malice, indifference or incompetence? That is the question that must be asked about how police in Rochester, N.Y., treated a 41-year-old Black man who was experiencing a psychotic episode. Daniel T. Prude died of asphyxiation after officers restrained him by pulling a hood over his head and forcing his face to the ground. Watch the excruciating video of Mr. Prude — naked, in obvious distress, sprawled on the ground and struggling for air while officers can be heard chuckling in the background — and it is clear that the answer is a combination of all three. It’s also clear that if Mr. Prude had been White he likely would have been treated with more humanity.

Mr. Prude’s deadly encounter with police occurred on March 23 — two months before George Floyd, also a Black man, died gasping for breath under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer in a case that galvanized the country to the problem of police brutality and racial injustice. But the Prude case came to light only on Wednesday, when attorneys for his family released graphic video footage of his arrest obtained through a public-records request. The video sparked protests in Rochester and prompted Mayor Lovely A. Warren (D) to order the suspension of the seven officers involved in the incident and apologize to the Prude family.

Ms. Warren claimed the police chief had misled her about the circumstances of the death. But the fact that she didn’t act sooner after seeing the disturbing video, and the suggestion of a possible coverup, are among the issues that need to be addressed.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office was charged by the governor with investigations into police-related killings of unarmed civilians after the death of yet another Black man, Eric Garner, undertook a criminal probe in April. That was after the county medical examiner ruled that Mr. Prude, who died March 30 after seven days on life support, was the victim of a homicide. That investigation is continuing.

What is particularly heartbreaking about this case is that it started with efforts by Mr. Prude’s brother to get him help. Mr. Prude’s erratic behavior prompted his brother to seek medical attention, but a visit to Strong Memorial Hospital resulted in a release without any treatment. When Daniel Prude bolted from his brother Joe’s house in the early hours, Joe Prude called 911. “I placed the phone call for my brother to get help, not for my brother to get lynched,” said Joe Prude.

Americans with mental illnesses make up nearly a quarter of those killed by police. Part of the debate about policing rightly has centered on the need to better train police in dealing with these cases or, preferably, to rethink public safety so that medical and social services professionals respond to non-criminal cases involving people in mental health or substance abuse crisis. Mr. Prude’s case clearly underscores the need for such reforms.

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Pete Earley: Mental illness is a health issue, not a police issue

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