By Jason Taylor and Matthew Treadwell
(ROCHESTER NY--) Documents released last week show how the Rochester Police Department sought to control the narrative in the aftermath of Daniel Prude's death at the hands of law enforcement.
Internal reports and emails released as part of Deputy Mayor James Smith’s report suggest the RPD made a concerted post-facto effort to depict the man they encountered naked, unarmed, and confused on that cold March night as a danger to officers, while also minimizing RPD's active role in Prude's killing.
These narrative maneuvers reify the law and order mentality, framing Prude as a suspect responsible for his own homicide.
“Make him a suspect”
Documents show that the RPD received at least three different calls related to Daniel Prude's mental health crisis after 3am on March 23rd. The first was a missing persons call from Prude's brother, Joseph Prude. The second was an automated alarm for a broken window at a storefront on West Main Street, although at the time it was not clear who broke the window. The third was from a bystander who reported seeing Prude acting erratically and pleading for someone to call 9-1-1 for help.
Internal RPD emails and documents from later that same morning initially referred to Prude as a victim. RPD's Major Crimes Unit got involved in the case because they believed Prude had died in the hours immediately following his arrest.
Even for the brief period of time in which officers referred to Prude as a "victim" in their internal documents, their language is dehumanizing.
"Victim was shipped to Rochester via bus yesterday from Chicago by his family because he was using PCP," Captain Frank Umbrino of RPD Major Crimes wrote in an email at 7:30 a.m. on March 23rd. "He got kicked off the bus in Buffalo and the family picked him up there around noon yesterday. At 1628 hrs yesterday he was mha’s [mental hygiene arrested] because he was acting crazy wigging out."
However, as the RPD began to construct its official narrative of what took place, handwritten notes on several police reports suggest an effort to play up the danger Prude posed to officers by, among other things, labeling him as a suspect.
A note circling Prude’s name and victim type, with the words “make him a suspect,” were written on an incident report submitted by Officer Mark Vaughn -- the officer who responded to Joe Prude's 9-1-1 call and who later placed Daniel Prude in handcuffs.
The same handwriting also appears on an incident report authored by Paul Ricotta, the officer who responded to the storefront alarm. “List Daniel Prude as (S) [suspect] and add burglary,” the unnamed annotator wrote.
RPD alleges that Prude broke one storefront window during his mental health crisis, estimated at $200 worth of damage. It took RPD several days to locate surveillance video that they say shows Prude breaking the window. RPD's subsequent investigation found that Prude did not take anything from the store, precluding the burglary charge suggested by the annotator.
On another report, the annotator suggests that Officer Mark Vaughn, the man who handcuffed Prude and "segmented" his head, change his use of force narrative to include mention of the coronavirus.
"The male continuously spit in the direction of officers and I placed a spit sock on him," Vaughn initially wrote.
"Due to the potential of contracting a virus, including coronavirus" the annotator suggested.
Body camera video shows that none of the responding officers were wearing masks to protect against COVID-19 during the arrest, suggesting they were in fact not especially concerned about contracting or transmitting the virus.
It is unclear who wrote the notes on the incident reports. Sergeant Flamur Zenelovic of the Major Crimes Unit is listed as the reviewing officer on other incident reports from that night.
Internal RPD documents also show an effort to downplay the extent of the force officers used to restrain and ultimately -- according to the medical examiner -- suffocate Prude to death.
Prude was in contact with officers for approximately 12 minutes, from the time he was handcuffed to the time he was taken away via ambulance. For 3 and half of those 12 minutes, Prude was physically restrained by 3 officers. Frank Santiago held his legs, Troy Talladay kneeled on his back, and Mark Vaughn forced Prude’s head into the pavement with the full weight of his upper body. Prude's hands were cuffed behind his back and he was naked, except for a "spit sock" officers placed over his head, during the entirety of the restraint.
Following the encounter with Prude, each of the officers completed a Subject Resistance Report, on which they checked off that Prude was “avoiding custody” and “assaultive.”
Sample criterion for “avoiding custody” includes “running/walking away” and “pulling away.” Sample criterion for “assaultive” includes “fighting stance,” “punching,” and “kicking.”
The body-worn camera footage of the incident shows that Prude immediately complied with his arrest when told to lay down on the ground and put his hands behind his back. After spending several minutes lying face down on the cold wet pavement with his hands cuffed behind him, Prude attempted to stand while continuing to talk incoherently. Officers then physically restrained him.
The language used in the Subject Resistance Reports relies heavily on euphemism, with Officer Vaughn describing how he “segmented” Prude’s head, only relenting after Prude “became calm,” at which point “it appeared that Prude was not breathing.”
In an internal investigation of the incident, Sergeant Flamur Zenelovic wrote that the officers used “minimal force” to keep Prude on the ground. Prude was “stabilized” until “a short time later officers noticed that Prude had apparently stopped breathing.”
“Asphyxiation in the setting of physical restraint”
Following his encounter with RPD officers, Daniel Prude was taken to Strong Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced braindead and died a week later. The medical examiner ruled his death a “homicide” caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” The examiner also listed “excited delirium” and "phencyclidine [PCP] intoxication" as contributing factors.
As was previously reported by the Democrat & Chronicle, the documents released as part of Deputy Mayor James Smith's report show that the RPD contacted the medical examiner’s office multiple times to insist on speaking to the medical examiner before the autopsy was conducted.
“Before autopsy I have some background info to give you,” Lieutenant Michael Perkowski wrote. “We will call you in 3 minutes,” the medical examiner’s assistant replied.
It is unclear what “somewhat sensitive” “background info” Lieutenant Perkowski wanted to provide beyond what the RPD was already sending in its written incident reports to the medical examiner’s office. But it's possible the RPD wanted to ensure the medical examiner would include "excited delirium" and PCP intoxication as contributing, if not primary, factors in Prude's death.
"Excited delirium" is a controversial term often used by law enforcement to justify police brutality. Those who use the term say it's associated with aggressiveness, rapid heart rate, excessive strength, and incoherence. The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association do not recognize excited delirium as a diagnosable condition.
Subsequent RPD communications with City Hall and the Mayor would emphasize the supposed role of "excited delirium" and drugs in the incident, with former RPD Chief La'Ron Singletary allegedly telling the Mayor that Prude died "of an overdose," a story the Mayor also allegedly repeated to City Council President Loretta Scott in August after having seen the body camera video herself.
On April 10th, Singletary notified Mayor Lovely Warren’s Chief of Communications of the medical examiner's ruling in an email titled “fyi."
Chief Singletary’s email reordered the contributing factors of Prude’s death from the ME's report, emphasizing his drug use by listing it first. Notably, no mention of asphyxiation or physical restraint is mentioned, having been replaced with the term “resisting arrest.”
In the email Chief Singletary mentions the RPD’s internal investigation of the incident. The concluding statement of that report, authored by Sergeant Zelenovic, says “the officers’ actions and conduct displayed when dealing with Prude appear to be appropriate and consistent with their training.” In other words, the RPD found nothing wrong, despite the medical examiner’s homicide ruling.
“Lens of the badge”
Since information about Daniel Prude's killing became public on September 2nd, community members and elected officials alike have been demanding a fuller account of what took place, beyond the RPD's narrative.
In his report last week, Deputy Mayor Smith condemned the RPD for distorting events of the case under a “lens of the badge.”
“The records reveal a culture of insularity, acceptance and, quite frankly, callousness that permeates the Rochester Police Department,” Smith wrote.
The documents in Smith's report show how the RPD worked to depict Prude as a criminal; to overplay his aggressiveness, while downplaying their own; to ostensibly influence the medical examiner’s ruling; and to delay public release of body camera footage of the incident.
On Monday, Rochester City Council issued subpoenas to the Mayor’s office, the Rochester City Law Department, and the RPD as part of its own internal investigation. The subpoenas mean to uncover further documents that may be related to Prude’s case. The requested materials must be submitted by October 2nd.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James is also conducting a criminal probe into the RPD officers' actions. On Sunday, she also announced reforms regarding the release of police body worn camera footage involving civilian deaths. Police departments previously held volition over when to release such footage -- James said that her office will now decide when a video is released, while still acting in accordance with existing privacy laws.
James made the announcement at a press conference in Rochester Sunday, on what would have been Prude’s 42nd birthday.
JASON TAYLOR and MATTHEW TREADWELL are volunteer reporters for Reclaiming the Narrative.
 Supporting Documents, Deputy Mayor's Report, September 14, 2020, page 54. Available at: https://www.cityofrochester.gov/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=21474845189
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