Feds to review decision not charging police in Prude’s death

New York State Attorney General Letitia A. James speaks during an editorial meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 7, at the Watertown Daily Times office in Watertown. Sydney Schaefer/Watertown Daily Times

ROCHESTER – The U.S. Department of Justice will review state Attorney General Letitia James’ report and a grand jury’s decision Tuesday to not criminally charge any city police in the restraining death of Daniel Prude to determine federal action, officials said.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of New York, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the FBI will analyze the grand jury’s decision to not file charges against Rochester Police officers after Prude, a Black man with mental health issues, was restrained in law enforcement custody March 23, 2020.

“We intend to review the comprehensive report issued by the New York State Attorney General, as well as any other relevant materials, and will determine whether any further federal response is warranted,” according to a joint statement Tuesday night from Pamela Karlan, principal deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; James P. Kennedy Jr., U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York; and Stephen A. Belongia, the special agent in charge at the FBI Buffalo Field Office.

James’s office released a 204-page report Tuesday and concluded the state investigation into several officers involved with the case.

Prude, who experienced a mental health crisis — or drug-induced “excited delirium” that often leads to erratic behavior and increased heart rate — suffered cardiac arrest while in police custody and was later declared brain dead. He died March 30 after being removed from life support.

Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Nadia Granger performed an autopsy and ruled Prude’s manner of death a homicide, and causes of death to be complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint, excited delirium and acute phencyclidine intoxication, according to the attorney general’s report.

Excited delirium often leads to increased heart rate, which can put individuals at risk of death if subjected to stressful conditions, according to the attorney general’s office.

Joe Prude called 911 just before 3 a.m. March 23 to report his brother, Daniel, had run from his home wearing only pants and a T-shirt without shoes and was on the hallucinogen PCP. Joe informed police his brother had been released from Strong Memorial Hospital hours earlier after being suicidal, according to the report.

Prude traveled 1 mile on foot in freezing weather before Rochester police stopped him.

A tow truck driver later called 911 to report a man “with blood all over him” was running down Jefferson Avenue. As Prude ran down the street, he removed his pants, becoming naked, and remaining unclothed for the remainder of the incident.

In pre-grand jury interviews, a young civilian witness indicated Prude defecated in the road, according to James’s report.

Police officer Mark Vaughn located Prude on Jefferson Avenue, directed him to get on the ground and put his hands behind his back. Prude complied and was handcuffed. Other officers arrived on scene, according to the report.

“None of the officers made any attempt to connect with Mr. Prude, who grew more agitated,” according to the report. “After Mr. Prude began spitting, the officers placed a spit sock over his head, which seemed to further agitate Mr. Prude.”

Prude shouted “Gimme your gun,” and other similar phrases, remaining naked and handcuffed and moved in a way in an attempt to stand, officers recalled, according to the attorney general’s office.

Vaughn, Patrol Officer Troy Taladay and Patrol Officer Francisco Santiago forced Prude to the ground and held him there by “segmenting,” or using a stabilization technique they had been taught at RPD in-service training. An ambulance arrived shortly afterward.

Prude fell silent and vomited while medical staff discussed treatment. Vaughn noticed he did not appear to be breathing and officers rolled him to his side. He regained a pulse after EMTs performed CPR, but never regained consciousness, according to the report.

“Responding officers knew that Mr. Prude was experiencing a mental health crisis, yet the officers who ultimately restrained Mr. Prude were largely unfamiliar with how to handle this type of medical emergency,” James said during a press conference at Aenon Missionary Baptist Church in Rochester on Tuesday.

A judge granted James’ motion to release the grand jury proceedings that led to the decision to not file charges in Prude’s death, according to a statement from the attorney general’s office Tuesday night.

“As I have contended throughout my entire career, there can be no accountability without transparency, and the public deserves to know what transpires behind closed doors,” James said. “That is why I filed a motion with the court to have the grand jury proceedings of this case unsealed and made available to the public, which the judge has just granted this evening. As soon as the judge authorizes, my office will release those proceedings so the Prude family, the Rochester community and communities across the country will no longer be kept in the dark. This is a critical step in effecting the change that is so desperately needed.”

Rochester police use spit socks made of mesh that loosely fit around a person’s head.

“In this case, there was no evidence that the spit sock placed over Mr. Prude’s head directly contributed to his death — there was no evidence that the spit sock impeded Mr. Prude’s airflow or impaired his circulation,” James said Tuesday. “However, it clearly added to his stress and agitation, and it is unknown as to whether that further contributed to his death. In light of this, agencies should investigate whether alternatives to traditional spit socks, such as plastic face coverings worn by officers, might be a better alternative when dealing with highly agitated subjects.”

Law enforcement, EMS and hospital workers commonly use spit socks to restrict the flow of saliva from one person to another to reduce the spread of disease.

The March 2020 incident took place about three weeks after the state’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 1.

James and members of her office continue to have serious concerns about Rochester police conduct, she said.

The attorney general recommended officers, dispatchers and EMS personnel must be trained to recognize the symptoms of excited delirium syndrome and to respond to it as a serious medical emergency and the passage of Daniel’s Law.

“Rochester and all communities should create and implement models for responding to crisis situations that minimize or eliminate police responses to mental health calls whenever possible,” James said.

The attorney general recommended the city of Rochester amend the Person in Crisis pilot program in its recent police reform proposal to be a tiered approach for officers to respond to situations with a person in emotional distress and consider safety concerns.

The program would send trained social workers to calls completely independent of police.

“However, the city noted that PIC would only be dispatched if there were ‘no weapons or injuries, or no crime has been committed,’” James said. “As the model is presently constructed, Mr. Prude’s case would have been outside the purview of PIC’s response.”

James also recommended the state mandate de-escalation training for all police officers and police agencies should reflect a commitment to de-escalation in use-of-force policies, for Rochester to adopt a body-worn camera release policy for critical incidents and law enforcement to seek alternatives to using spit socks.

Each officer involved in Prude’s case was interviewed by members of the attorney general’s office and appeared with his attorney before presentation to the grand jury Tuesday.

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