Police officers shown on body camera video holding Daniel Prude down naked and handcuffed on a city street last winter until he stopped breathing will not face criminal charges, according to a grand jury decision announced Tuesday.
The 41-year-old Black man’s death last March sparked nightly protests in Rochester, New York, after the video was released nearly six months later, with demonstrators demanding a reckoning for police and city officials.
State Attorney General Letitia James, whose office took over the prosecution and impaneled a grand jury, said her office “presented the strongest case possible” and she was “extremely disappointed” by the decision.
“The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold law enforcement officers accountable for the unjustified killing of African Americans. And what binds these cases is a tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could have been avoided,” James said at the Aenon Missionary Baptist Church in Rochester.
"One recognizes the influences of race, from the slave codes to Jim Crow to lynching to the war on crime to the overincarceration of people of color: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. And now Daniel Prude,” James later added.
Lawyers for the seven police officers suspended over Prude’s death have said the officers were strictly following their training that night, employing a restraining technique known as “segmenting.” They claimed Prude’s use of PCP, which caused irrational behavior, was “the root cause” of his death.
The March 23 video made public on Sept. 4 was released in the wake of street demonstrations around the nation over George Floyd’s death. It shows Prude handcuffed and naked with a spit hood over his head as an officer pushes his face against the ground, while another officer presses a knee to his back. The officers held him down for about two minutes until he stopped breathing. He was taken off life support a week later.
“The system failed Daniel Prude again," said Prude family lawyer Elliot Shields. ”It failed him on March 22 when he was released from the hospital. It failed him on the night of March 23 when the police use deadly force against him. And it failed him again today."
Shields said Prude's brother, Joe Prude, was “heartbroken.”
Officers Troy Taladay, Paul Ricotta, Francisco Santiago, Andrew Specksgoor, Josiah Harris and Mark Vaughn, along with Sgt. Michael Magri, were suspended after Prude’s death became public.
Calls were made to the officers’ attorneys. Matthew Rich, who represents four officers, said “we’re still taking it in” and said the attorneys would speak to the press later.
Prude’s family filed a federal lawsuit in September alleging the police department sought to cover up the true nature of his death.
The county medical examiner listed the manner of death as homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint” and cited PCP as a contributing factor.
James recommended that officers and other responders be trained to recognize the symptoms of excited delirium syndrome, which can make people vulnerable to cardiac arrest. The medical examiner and the attorney general’s expert both concluded that Prude was in a state of excited delirium.
The attorney general also called for communities to minimize or eliminate police responses to mental health calls and to find alternatives to the type of “spit sock” officers placed over Prude’s head. She said the mesh hood clearly added to Prude’s stress and agitation.
Democratic Mayor Lovely Warren fired police chief La’Ron Singletary shortly after the video’s release, while rejecting calls from demonstrators that she resign.
The city halted its investigation into Prude’s death when James’ office began its own investigation in April. Under New York law, deaths of unarmed people in police custody are typically turned over to the attorney general’s office, rather than handled by local officials.
James planned to meet with Prude’s brother, criminal justice advocates and faith leaders in Rochester to devise a plan to fight for a more just system.
“The voices of individuals of good will must be heard and they are marching and crying out for a criminal justice system that is fair and just,” James said Tuesday. “And so we must use boulders of righteousness, and hammers of intentional activism and mallets of moral clarity to bend the arc, the moral arc, towards justice and bring real equality in our time for all God’s people.”