By Spencer Haynes
An Overview of the Incident
In the early morning of March 23rd in Rochester, NY, Daniel Prude overdosed on PCP, a street drug with strong hallucinogenic effects. As a result, he began to act erratically, running into the street and removing his clothes. His brother Joe then called 911 out of concern for Prude’s safety. This was understandable, as Prude had recently been hospitalized for mental health issues. Police and EMTs responded to the call, and Prude was initially compliant with the officers. However, he soon began spitting at the officers, while claiming to have COVID-19. This prompted officers to apply a spit hood, a mesh bag put over a subject’s head to block spit from contacting officers while still allowing the subject to breathe. Unfortunately, Prude became more agitated, and demanded the officer’s gun. Soon after, Prude tried to lunge towards the officer, which is when he was restrained. Officers rolled Prude onto his stomach, pinning him down on his back and head. This action was taken to protect the officers and calm the subject down, but instead led to a restriction of Prude’s breathing from positional asphyxia (restriction of breathing from being face down). This, combined with complications of PCP like vomiting and shortness of breath, led to Prude’s coma and eventual death. When officers realized Prude had no pulse, they performed chest compressions under the supervision of the EMT on scene. After transport to the hospital, Prude did regain a pulse, but was declared brain dead due to lack of oxygen to the brain. On March 30th, Prude died after being taken off life support.
After Prude’s death, the police department ran an internal investigation that cleared the officers of wrongdoing. However, the details of this investigation were never released to the public. In fact, it took two months for the case to receive any more attention. In early July, Governor Andrew Cuomo discovered that the case was a homicide and ordered the attorney general to investigate the case. Instead of being transparent with the attorney general, the city of Rochester used the investigation as an excuse to withhold case information. It took the police department over 4 months to show the video of Prude’s arrest, when his family requested it. When they saw the video, they were shocked, and began seeking legal ramifications. The police department and city now realized they couldn’t hide the video, and released it to the public on September 2nd. Response to the video was swift. Thousands of Rochestestarians filled the streets downtown for over 2 weeks. While many remained peaceful, police were constantly targeted. The police were pelted with bottles and attacked with fireworks. Officers were also forced to hide their names because protestors shared their personal information including addresses and family records. A combination of factors also led to the resignation of Rochester Police Chief LaRon Singletary and several others in the police chain of command. Despite these resignations, protests still call for the resignation of Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. Many in the police department agree with the protestors on this point for several reasons. Firstly, she immediately blamed police chief Singletary for covering up the homicide, despite her signing off on the police’s investigation in April. She also found out Prude’s death was a homicide months before the video was released. Lastly, she has stayed silent while protestors harass and incite violence against police. Many also believe that she is using this incident for political gain. She has fired Chief Singletary even though he was resigning and is suddenly calling for radical changes in the police department. It will be interesting to see whether this will garner support from the protestors, but for now, most still call for her resignation.
Legal and Ethical Analysis of the Officer’s Actions
While this case has produced outrage locally, it has drawn more national attention because of its similarity to the George Floyd case. However, these incidents are not as similar as they appear when viewed from a legal and ethical perspective. From a legal perspective, officers in Rochester did not violate statutes in the way George Floyd’s killers did. Evidence to this effect is found in the legal definition of 2nd degree murder, 3rd degree murder and criminally negligent homicide (listed from most severe to least severe). Derek Chauvin in Minnesota was charged with 2nd degree murder, while Prude’s arresting officers committed homicide. Firstly, homicide simply means death at the hands of another person even if completely accidental and non-criminal. Criminally Negligent Homicide (the lowest form of illegal homicide) is committing conduct that creates an unjustifiable risk of death, and not showing the care a normal person would in those circumstances. The actions of George Floyd’s arresting officers obviously fit this criteria. Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned George Floyd, did not need to hold George Floyd down in an illegal manner for an excessive length of time, as Floyd was compliant. These acts created a clear risk of death. Because Chauvin committed an act so heinous it was seen as intentional, he also was charged with 2nd degree murder. The officers with Chauvin were guilty of aiding and abetting murder, because they helped Chauvin continue strangling Floyd. Firstly, pinning Prude down was at least somewhat justified. Prude was lunging for the officer’s gun, acting unpredictably due to the PCP, and experiencing excited delirium, which can lead to extreme levels of strength. These factors could endanger the lives of Prude and others at the scene if he was not restrained. Secondly, the EMT present at the scene said that the officers did nothing wrong. She is not only a reasonable outsider, but also a trained medical professional fit to judge what due care would be under the circumstances. Therefore, from a legal perspective, the officers did not commit criminal homicide as the officers in Minneapolis did. However, the Rochester officers could face civil charges for wrongful death as the corresponding standards for guilt are much lower. That is why the family of Daniel Prude announced a lawsuit for wrongful death against the Rochester Police Department, asking for both monetary compensation, and a restructuring of the Rochester Police Force. The strength of this case is still unclear, and it does not appear that the family will pursue criminal charges.
While law is a key component to this case, it is undoubtedly a minimum standard for police conduct. The bigger question is this: do police actions and policies reflect our shared values, like safety, empathy, and freedom from judgment? Unfortunately, outdated and ignorant policies have made the police a threat to the people they are meant to protect. For example, police are told to restrain subjects on their stomachs until they are fully sedated. However, sedation can also mean death by positional asphyxia, especially when a subject is on drugs. Officers should be able to identify the difference between suffocation and sedation, but are not trained to check vital signs or receive help from medical professionals. Police also fail to recognize the seriousness of drug overdose. Despite what many claim, drug addiction can be a severe mental illness. For example, PCP causes symptoms similar to schizophrenia including hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, and even hearing voices. These symptoms caused Daniel Prude to act erratically, but instead of showing compassion, the officers laughed at him. It is clear, therefore, that this area of policing must be reformed.
Comments and Recommendations
It is clear that the Rochester Police need to change in some areas to match the needs of their community. First, police policies that needlessly endanger subjects should be revisited and revised. Such policies would include methods for pinning subjects, and identifying when someone is choking, suffocating, or as in this case, vomiting. Secondly, law enforcement should be closely connected to mental health organizations. Ideally, this would have two components: extensive officer training from mental health professionals, and officers trained in crisis management to oversee the safe transport of subjects to the hospital. Some have argued that moving money directly to mental health services from the police budget would be ideal. However, people with mental illness are much more likely to hurt themselves or others if psychotic or under the influence. Therefore, bringing professionals directly into the police force would likely provide the best outcome. Indeed, the last police chief of Rochester stated that defunding the police does not reform the police, but rather takes away the resources needed to make change. With regards to the racial injustice narrative, I do not believe the Rochester police department has widespread racial bias. In fact, LaRon Singletary has been one of the most progressive chiefs in the city’s history. He has adamantly supported community policing, including residency requirements for officers. He has also promoted the hiring of African American police officers to better reflect city demographics and, most importantly, he has fired numerous officers for showing racial bias or improper conduct. To me, his leadership has dramatically improved policing in the city, and his firing was a terrible mistake—a mistake that will make needed changes very difficult to attain. Clearly, the Daniel Prude case has a local impact as deep as its national effect. Therefore, the most important change is restoring trust between Rochester institutions and the people they serve.