Recently released departmental emails from the Rochester Police Department have thrown yet another wrench into the works when it comes to the investigation of the death of Daniel Prude following his arrest in March. One of the biggest factors driving the unrest and violent protests in the city was the release of police body camera footage of Prude’s initial arrest. But internal communications indicate that both the leadership in the police department and one of the officers on the scene were urging the Mayor and the Police Chief to hold off on releasing the footage to Prude’s family, citing concerns that it would inflame the public given the national narratives about police violence that have been making the rounds. This revelation clearly won’t do much in terms of restoring the public’s trust in the process. (Associated Press)
Rochester police commanders urged city officials to hold off on publicly releasing body camera footage of Daniel Prude’s suffocation death because they feared violent blowback if the video came out during nationwide protests over the police killing of George Floyd, newly released emails show.
Deputy Chief Mark Simmons cited the “current climate” in the city and the nation in a June 4 email advising then-Chief La’ron Singletary to press the city’s lawyers to deny a Prude family lawyer’s public records request for the footage of the March 23 encounter that led to his death.
The video, finally made public by Prude’s family on Sept. 4, 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 response to this announcement will clearly be interpreted differently by the two sides currently debating this incident. Advocates looking to blame (and either defund or abolish) the police will point to this news and describe it as a lack of transparency intended to cover up wrongdoing by the cops during the arrest. Can we rule that out as being their true motive? Probably not, or at least not absolutely.
But reading the wording of the emails in question, it’s equally obvious that the officers were expressing a completely valid concern. The email from Mark Simmons, the Deputy Chief of Police, warned that the public release of the footage could lead people to “misinterpret the officers’ actions and conflate this incident with any recent killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement nationally.” He went on to warn that such a public airing of the body cam footage could lead to “animosity and potentially violent blow back” in the community.
Two of the officers involved on the scene told a city attorney that they were “very concerned” over a premature release of the footage, warning of potential “intense ramifications” as a result. Then-Chief Singletary responded by saying he “totally agreed” with their concerns. These emails only became available on Monday, the same day that the Mayor fired Singletary. It’s hard to dismiss the possibility that the two events were directly related.
We can’t identify the motives behind these requests, but the officers’ predictions obviously came true. Within a few nights of the release of the footage to the public, crowds of protesters and rioters swelled from a few dozen to more than a thousand people. The “intense ramifications” that they warned of certainly came to pass in short order.
But the question I can’t get out of my head this morning is if there was ever going to be a “good time” to release the videos without producing the backlash we’re seeing. The police could have used the intervening time to make their case that Prude represented a clear threat to himself and others and that he had actually died as a result of an overdose of PCP. But that hasn’t been definitively established, though it was the opinion of the first medic responding to the scene. The Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office felt otherwise, however, ruling that Prude’s death was a “homicide” caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” But the report also noted the presence of PCP in Prude’s system, complicating the matter further.
The point is that the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request filed by the Prude family’s attorney couldn’t simply be ignored. The videos were going to come out sooner or later and the resultant mayhem likely wouldn’t have been curbed by any amount of explanations offered by the police. And the defense of the police involved, assuming this winds up going to trial, just become exponentially more complicated.