Attorneys for police officers suspended in Daniel Prude case challenge autopsy findings

Noble Horvath

Police body camera video shows that police handcuffed Prude and covered his head with a “spit hood,” a device meant to protect police from bodily fluids. The video then shows officers forcing Prude’s head and chest onto the pavement. Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis. Janine […]

Police body camera video shows that police handcuffed Prude and covered his head with a “spit hood,” a device meant to protect police from bodily fluids. The video then shows officers forcing Prude’s head and chest onto the pavement. Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis.

Janine Kava, spokeswoman for the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, said in a statement that the state’s defensive tactics curriculum, which is taught at the police academy, “does not train recruits to use any defensive tactics after handcuffing occurs. These tactics are only taught to be used before handcuffing.”

The state does not oversee local training, including the type lawyers said police received earlier this year. Rochester police could not immediately be reached for comment.

The Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Prude’s death a homicide and listed three causes of death: complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint, excited delirium and intoxication. The report said Prude had PCP in his system.

Lawyers for the officers said they believe the homicide ruling was a medical interpretation, not a legal one. The Monroe County Medical Examiner’s Office declined to comment, citing an active investigation.

The attorneys focused on Prude’s drug use, claiming it led to “irrational and dangerous statements and behavior” and suggested it may have caused Prude’s respiratory system to fail. Prude died a week after he was detained by police.

“His death while tragic, was the result of that acute and voluntary intoxication and not the result of anything the officers did or did not do,” said Matthew Rich, an attorney representing four of the officers.

Prude’s family was “shocked and offended that this is the position of the officers,” said their attorney, Elliot Shields. “Unfortunately, they’re not surprised.”

Shields said the officers “knew that something was wrong” with Prude. Shields has filed a federal lawsuit on the family’s behalf against the city of Rochester. It names the seven officers.

“It’s disgusting that they’re up there blaming the victim,” he said.

Shields said the Rochester Police Department’s training guidelines, which are cited in the lawsuit, specifically caution against putting people with certain risk factors, including the use of drugs, in a position like the one in which the officers placed Prude.

Rich claimed the officers did nothing wrong and defended them against claims that the treatment of Prude was “inhumane.”

For instance, police lawyers said, the officers have been accused of ignoring the fact that Prude was naked in the frigid weather and not covering him up. But attorneys said Prude had hyperthermia and overheating due to being intoxicated and a blanket would have done more harm than good. They added that blankets were not issued by the police department.

Lawyers said it was necessary to restrain Prude because he had jumped up, and numerous officers would have been needed to bring him back to the ground to safely put him in an ambulance.

“The main goal of the officers on the scene was to secure Mr. Prude and get him medical help,” Rich argued at the news conference held at the headquarters of the Rochester Police Locust Club, the police department’s union. Prude’s drug use “ultimately made that impossible,” Rich said.

Prude’s death in police custody is not the first in which a medical examiner’s findings were interpreted differently by representatives of officers involved. In New York City, the medical examiner determined that the banned chokehold used on Eric Garner during an attempt to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes in 2014 triggered his chronic health conditions — including asthma and hypertension. When the report made its way to former NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s legal team, the head of the union representing Pantaleo said in a statement that it found “conclusively that Mr. Garner did not die of strangulation of the neck from a chokehold which would have caused a crushed larynx (windpipe) and a fractured hyoid bone.”

Prude’s death, a week after the March 23 encounter with the Rochester Police Department, has prompted calls for reforming how police nationwide handle people in mental health crises.

Lawyers for Prude’s family have said the police and city failed their late relative, who had recently arrived from Chicago to stay with his brother. Joe Prude called the police that night for fear that Daniel Prude might hurt himself.

Daniel Prude had been treated for a mental health episode earlier in the day and released from a hospital.

A movement to treat mental health and drug-induced psychosis calls through intervention by counselors is underway but not widely in use. A counselor was not on scene the night Prude was detained.

Lawyers on Thursday painted what they said is a stark reality for police officers who encounter someone who is in the middle of a crisis: that using force is sometimes necessary.

“It was not going to be a mental health professional that somehow would have talked this man into the ambulance,” Rich said. “That’s just pure fantasy.”

Police lawyers said Prude had defecated in the street and was bleeding. Prude told at least one witness he had the coronavirus. The attorneys said police on scene kept their distance, for their own safety, until they had to try to keep Prude calm and on the ground.

While none of the officers have been criminally charged, the New York attorney general is conducting an investigation and could present charges to a grand jury.

Former police chief La’Ron Singletary was fired by the mayor after a report by the city’s deputy mayor said the department engaged in conduct that may have been designed to mislead the public, saying the response to Prude’s death showed a “culture of insularity, acceptance and, quite frankly, callousness” within the Rochester Police Department.

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