ROCHESTER, N.Y. – A Black man died of asphyxiation after police officers in Rochester, New York, who tried to take him into protective custody pinned him to the ground while restraining him.
The incident occurred in March, two months before George Floyd’s very similar death in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests. Yet it didn’t become public until now.
The curtain was lifted on the death of 41-year-old Daniel T. Prude at a late-morning news conference Wednesday at which Prude’s family and local activists called for the officers involved to be fired and charged in his homicide.
The family also released police body camera video and written reports from the incident which they obtained through a public records request.
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“We are in need of accountability for the wrongful death and murder of Daniel Prude. He was treated inhumanely and without dignity,” said Ashley Gantt, a community organizer from Free the People Roc. “These officers killed someone and are still patrolling in our community.”
The case also brought calls from Black Lives Matter activists for changes to policing, including an end to the practice of having police officers respond to mental health calls.
Prude’s death on March 30 after a week on life support parallels numerous others locally and nationally in which mentally or emotionally stressed people, many of them people of color, have succumbed when officers forcefully restrained them.
Prude’s death ruled homicide
Monroe County Medical Examiner Dr. Nadia Granger ruled Prude’s death a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,” according to the autopsy report.
The New York state Attorney General’s office has been investigating the officers’ conduct in the Prude case since April and has the ability to seek criminal charges.
The officers’ interaction with Prude was captured on police body-worn-camera video, a compilation of which was to be made public Wednesday.
The video compiled for the Prude case is not a graphic depiction of officers shooting or beating a suspect.
Rather, it depicts officers holding Prude prone and forcing his head and chest into the pavement for several minutes until, apparently unnoticed by the officers, he stops breathing.
The events are indicative of how the rules of engagement used by police can result in harm to a suspect or a person in the throes of a mental health episode.
A copy of the video compilation and some case documents, including the autopsy report and an internal police investigation of the case, were provided to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network, earlier this week by one of the family’s lawyers, Elliot Shields.
A notice of intent to sue the city has been filed, and city officials are said to be aware of the family’s anger over Prude’s death.
The report of the internal police investigation into the fatal encounter concluded “the officers’ actions and conduct displayed when dealing with Prude appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training.”
Shields said that to his knowledge, the officers remain on active duty and were not disciplined.
Prude’s brother called Daniel’s death “a cold-blooded murder.”
“I placed a phone call for my brother to get help, not to get lynched,” Joe Prude said outside Rochester’s City Hall Wednesday. “How many brothers have to die for society to understand this has to stop?”
Prude was suffering from acute mental health problems when Rochester officers detained him in the early hours of Monday, March 23, as he walked naked and bleeding down Jefferson Avenue in the southwestern part of the city.
His family told police they suspected he was under the influence of the powerful hallucinogen phencyclidine, or PCP.
A resident of Chicago, Prude had arrived in Rochester the day before to stay with his brother, Joe Prude, in Joe’s home on Rochester’s west side.
Prude rode Amtrak to Buffalo but was thrown off the train there, his brother later told police. After being driven to Rochester, he began to act out. After he jumped headfirst down the basement stairs, Joe Prude said he called police for help. Prude was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital for a mental health evaluation and released the evening of March 22, according to the police investigation narrative.
After some hours of stable behavior, Prude ran out the back door of Joe’s home at 3 a.m. when his brother was out of the room, prompting another call for help to 911.
How the incident unfolded
Police believe Prude broke windows at a business as he walked along before officers found him. Several people encountered him, and at least one of them called 911 to report his erratic actions, the police narrative said.
Prude had left his brother’s home wearing only long underwear, a tank top and socks. He took off the clothes while on West Main, a witness told police. One passerby stopped to shoot a Facebook Live video of Prude after seeing the man get on his knees and beg another motorist to call 911.
When the motorist responded that he was on the phone with the emergency center, Prude ran off.
After being intercepted moments later by a police officer, Prude was ordered to lie on the ground and place his hands behind his back. He complied immediately with both directives, the video shows, saying “sure thing, sure thing” as he rolled onto his stomach. The time was 3:16 a.m.
The city gave Shields a total of 88 minutes of police body camera footage of the incident on Aug. 20, pursuant to an open-records request.
The video does not show Prude offering any physical resistance to the half-dozen or so officers who converged on the scene. The video, with one gap of a few seconds, appears to show the entirety of the 11-minute interaction between Prude and the police.
The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reviewed all 88 minutes of raw video, which Shields also provided, and did not see any meaningful action that had been omitted from the compilation.
The police plan was to subdue and calm Prude and make what is known as a mental health arrest, which is not a criminal arrest but a civil detention for the purpose of taking the person to receive emergency treatment.
Though handcuffed and on the ground, Prude remained agitated, squirming and shouting belligerently at times and spitting into the street.
After the spitting began, officers covered Prude’s face and head with a white “spit hood” intended to protect police from a suspect’s bodily fluids. Prude had told officers he was infected with the coronavirus, which likely raised concerns about his spitting.
The hood was the only covering he was given; Prude remained naked in temperatures just above freezing as light snow fell throughout the episode.
Four minutes after the police arrived, officers stood in a semicircle around Prude as he sat in the middle of Jefferson Avenue, his hands still cuffed behind his back. He yelled unintelligibly, then clearly shouted “Gimme that gun. Gimme that gun!” As he yelled, he scooted on his rear toward an officer and appeared to be trying to get to his feet.
Officers immediately pushed him over. Prude could be heard to say “You’re trying to kill me” as officers began to hold him down so he could not move.
An officer identified in the video as Mark Vaughn uses both hands with much of his weight behind them to push the side of Prude’s head into the pavement, essentially doing a triangle push-up. The approach was different but reminiscent of the way George Floyd’s neck was compressed by an officer’s knee on May 25.
Another officer, identified as Troy Talladay, used his knee at one point to hold down Prude’s torso, and a third held down his legs.
Vaughn, in the report he wrote of the incident, said he had “segmented” Prude’s head. He also wrote that he used a “hypoglossal nerve technique,” which involves jamming fingers into a nerve below the jaw to cause pain and persuade a subject to comply.
There is no evidence in the video of officers striking Prude or acting toward him in an overtly hostile way.
In the video, Prude’s body movements can be seen to become less frequent. His incoherent shouts become whimpers. Then he falls silent.
The time stamps on the video indicate Vaughn pushed down Prude’s head for 2 minutes and 15 seconds before letting up and saying “You good now?” to the prone man, who did not respond. Vaughn then resumed pushing with one hand for another 45 seconds.
Officers chat with one another and with an emergency medication technician from an AMR ambulance that had arrived but cannot be heard making any mention of the fact that the man was not moving.
Finally, a full three minutes after the officers began to press Prude into the asphalt, an ambulance EMT came over and asked the officers to roll Prude onto his back. He later told police investigators this is when he recognized Prude was not breathing.
The EMT, identified as Brett Barnes, began to administer CPR seconds later as he called his colleague to help. Officers could not immediately find a key to remove the handcuffs, and Prude’s hands remained secured behind his back for two minutes while resuscitation efforts continued.
When a police investigator later asked Barnes about the officers’ restraint techniques, he told them “nothing looked ‘over the top’ or malicious in nature” and added that “the officers’ actions appeared appropriate for what Prude was doing, and necessary to keep Prude from running around the entire street.”
The pair of emergency responders had intended to inject Prude with a sedative so he could be safely moved to a hospital, the police narrative said. They were present for about two minutes but had not sedated Prude before the medical crisis eliminated their need to do so.
Prude was taken aboard the ambulance 11 minutes after the first officer arrived, the video shows. His heartbeat was restored during the short ambulance trip to Strong Memorial Hospital, according to the police narrative, but his brain had been deprived of oxygen for too long. He was later declared brain dead and died March 30 after being taken off life support, according to the report.
After Prude was rushed to the hospital, one of the officers was sent to his brother’s home to tell him Prude had been found.
“We got him. Your brother’s at Strong,” the officer can be heard to say on the unedited police video. The officer spoke with Joe Prude and members of his family for several minutes but never betrayed the fact that his brother’s heart had stopped beating after being restrained.
“So he cooperated?” Joe asked. “Yeah, um ...” the officer answered. He excused himself a moment later to make a phone call.
Traces of PCP found
Toxicology tests as part of the autopsy found a low level of PCP, also known as angel dust, in Prude’s blood. The drug can induce schizophrenia and wildly erratic, violent behavior.
The autopsy report listed “acute phencyclidine intoxication” as a complication of his death. The medical examiner did not say whether the levels of PCP in his blood explained Prude’s behavior before and during his detention by city police and did not make any mention of preexisting mental health issues that might have come into play.
Shields said Prude’s sister, with whom he lived in Chicago, said she suspected Prude had unknowingly smoked a joint laced with PCP at a party he attended just before his erratic behavior began.
She sent him to visit his brother in Rochester after he began to act out in Chicago, he said.
The autopsy report also listed several health conditions – two different lung diseases, heart inflammation and a brain injury – that were complications of his death.
The report at one point indicated the cause of death was “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint due to excited delirium due to acute phycyclidine intoxication,” as if one followed on the other.
That is, as if Prude’s PCP intoxication caused excited delirium, which prompted the physical restraint that deprived Prude of oxygen.
The term “excited delirium” and the concept behind it is a controversial one. It is often applied to suspects who aggressively resist police detention efforts. Officers and pathologists frequently assert that the suspects are high on drugs.
Proponents say someone suffering from the syndrome is more likely to die from preexisting health problems such as a bad heart.
Both AMR personnel who were on the scene that morning later told Rochester police investigators that it appeared Prude may have been experiencing excited delirium.
But critics say the term has no formal meaning in medicine and is used as a way to explain resistant behavior of suspects and to normalize officers’ aggressive responses. It is applied most often to young men of color, some have asserted.
In the video of the Prude incident, a paramedic from the ambulance crew, identified in the police report as Julie Purick, speaks to an officer as her colleague tries to revive Prude.
“PCP can cause what we call excited delirium,” she said.
“Yeah, I know what excited delirium is,” the police officer responds.
“I guarantee you that’s how he coded,” Purick goes on, using a shorthand expression for the sudden cessation of lung and heart function. “It’s not you guys’ fault. You’ve got to keep yourselves safe.”
Contributing: Sean Lahman and Will Cleveland, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle