Prude police officers cleared by grand jury
None of the police officers responsible for Daniel Prude's death will face criminal charges in his killing, Attorney General Letitia James announced Tuesday, explaining that the grand jury empaneled to hear her case against the seven officers declined to indict them.
The attorney general spoke at Aenon Baptist Church on Genesee Street, a few blocks from the intersection of Jefferson Avenue where Prude was suffocated on March 23 by three officers -- Mark Vaughn, Francisco Santiago, and Troy Taladay.
Prude died a week later in the hospital. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, and determined he died of "complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint" due in part to "excited delirium" brought on by PCP intoxication.
The attorney general said she was "extremely disappointed" in the decision, and pledged to work toward reforming state laws and policy surrounding the use of deadly force and police training.
"I know that the Prude family will be rightfully disappointed in this outcome," James said. "My office presented an extensive case, and we sought a different outcome than the one the grand jury handed us today."
"The criminal justice system has frustrated efforts to hold officers accountable for the unjustified killing of unarmed African Americans," James added. "What binds these cases is a tragic loss of life in circumstances in which the death could have been avoided."
James said she would meet with Prude's brother, Joe Prude, immediately after her news conference and, as if to underscore her message that policing in Rochester needs to be reformed, she said she would also meet later with the 9-year-old girl whose pepper-spraying by a Rochester officer made international news.
Lawyers for Nathaniel McFarland, a son of Prude's, issued a statement saying he was disappointed and saddened by the finding of the grand jury. "Based upon the video evidence of this event, it is very difficult for Mr. McFarland to understand this decision," the statement read.
Within a couple of hours of the attorney general's news conference, she announced that a state judge had granted her motion to unseal and publicly release the grand jury minutes.
The U.S. Department of Justice issued a statement saying that the agency's Civil Rights Division would review relevant materials from the attorney general's investigation and "determine whether any further federal response is warranted."
CITY BRACES FOR TENSE EVENING
Prude’s death, which came to light five months after it occurred, led to nearly around-the-clock protests for weeks on end last fall. After the attorney general's announcement, organizers of those demonstrations called for people to gather at 7 p.m. on Jefferson Avenue where Prude was killed.
"After almost a year of being strung along, these are the results," said Free the People organizer and City Council candidate Stanley Martin. "We were all hopeful justice would be served in some capacity but today we are reminded there's no justice in a racist system."
News that the grand jury "no-billed" the case, as the process of refusing to indict is known, was initially met with relative calm in the hours after the attorney general's announcement. Activists had said they expected the outcome and were focused on comforting the Prude family.
Still, the city braced for a tense evening. The gathering was expected to lead to a march on the Rochester Police Department's headquarters at the Public Safety Building on Exchange Street, where police had barricaded adjacent parking lots in anticipation of demonstrations.
Moments before the announcement, City Council released a letter calling on police to modify the way they handle protests that included banning the use of chemical agents, like tear gas and so-called "flash bangs," and establish clear rules of engagement. Eight of the nine City Council members signed the letter, with the lone holdout being Councilmember Jose Peo.
Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan issued a statement urging safety and calling on demonstrators to refrain from violence.
"I understand the community’s collective pain in this moment and respect their constitutional right to peaceful and lawful demonstration to express their feelings about the grand jury's decision," she said. "However, it is critical that the lives and property of all are also respected and safeguarded. Our primary goal is to maintain public safety and to keep the peace. We ask that anyone wishing to demonstrate refrain from committing acts of violence or crimes."
Sullivan also noted that an internal investigation into Prude's death is ongoing and that the seven officers previously suspended with pay in connection to the incident remain on leave.
The Rochester Police Locust Club said that given the pending internal investigation, it would not make any comment on the grand jury decision.
CHARGES SOUGHT UNCLEAR
It was not clear what charges the attorney general brought to the grand jury.
Grand jury proceedings are secret by law, and James declined to answer reporters' questions as to what charges she had hoped to be levied against the officers.
The impending unsealing of the minutes of the grand jury proceedings, however, should shed light on what prosecutors sought. It was not immediately clear when James would release the minutes.
The officers' attorneys have argued that the three officers who restrained Prude were following their training -- a refrain echoed by the police union. The technique they used is known as "segmentation," and is taught to officers in most every police department in New York as part of a statewide police curriculum. municipalities across the state.
The tactic is meant to quickly subdue a noncompliant person. But Prude was already in handcuffs and immobilized when officers applied the technique.
In a statement, Mayor Lovely Warren referenced ongoing city efforts related to policing, specifically the draft police reform proposals the city released in response to a statewide executive order from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, and forthcoming revised orders for the department from the police chief.
"The announcement by the attorney general is hard for many of us to understand," Warren's statement read. "Today’s findings will not undo the damage done nor bring Mr. Prude back to his loved ones. And, we extend our fullest prayers and condolences to his children and his family. There are no words that can comfort a family who has lost their loved one in this tragic way. Our actions going forward will ensure that Daniel Prude’s death was not in vain."
Warren has been heavily criticized for her handling of Prude's death, in particular for not acknowledging it publicly until it was brought to light by his family in September.
The mayor has since acknowledged learning of Prude's arrest and subsequent death when each occurred, but has insisted that she did not know the full scope of the circumstances around each until August, when she first viewed footage from police body-worn cameras.
La'Ron Singletary, the former chief of police who announced his resignation in September before the mayor promptly fired him, has testified in an ongoing City Council investigation of the Warren administration’s handling of the incident that they mayor likened what she viewed in the video footage to "murder."
Notably, Singletary said at several points during his testimony that it never occurred to him that Prude's death, and the circumstances around it, should be released publicly.
In announcing the grand jury's findings, James released the contents of her investigation in a 204-page report, as well as recommendations for police reform she said she would push to implement.
Among them were that New York mandate "de-escalation training" for all officers and specify in legislation that "deadly force" be applied only as a last resort. She also recommended that Rochester adopt a policy of releasing police body-worn camera footage of "critical incidents" and that the state explore alternatives to the use of so-called "spit socks."
The white mesh hood "spit sock" that officer placed over Prude's head the night of his arrest has been the subject of much debate. The image of Prude naked and wearing the hood has become an enduring image of his death, although James made a point of noting that there was no evidence to suggest it was a factor in his death.
"The system was built to protect and shield officers from wrongdoing and accountability. The system too often allows officers to use deadly force unnecessarily and without consequence," James said. "And that is a system that at its core is broken."
With reporting by WXXI News reporter James Brown.
This is a developing story and it may be updated as the planned demonstrations unfold.