New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that today a grand jury voted not to indict any police officer on charges related to the March 2020 death of Daniel Prude.
In the course of the investigation, the Office of the Attorney General concluded that there was sufficient evidence surrounding Mr. Prude’s death to warrant presenting the case to a grand jury.
In an effort to provide maximum transparency into the case, Attorney General James is proactively releasing a comprehensive report with detailed descriptions of the events of March 22 and 23, 2020, legal analysis, all the evidence, findings, and recommendations that the office collected during the investigation outside of the grand jury process.
“Daniel Prude was in the throes of a mental health crisis and what he needed was compassion, care, and help from trained professionals. Tragically, he received none of those things,” said Attorney General James. “We concluded that there was sufficient evidence surrounding Mr. Prude’s death to warrant presenting the case to a grand jury, and we presented the most comprehensive case possible. While I know that the Prude family, the Rochester community, and communities across the country will rightfully be devastated and disappointed, we have to respect this decision.
“The current laws on deadly force have created a system that utterly and abjectly failed Mr. Prude and so many others before him. Serious reform is needed, not only at the Rochester Police Department, but to our criminal justice system as a whole. I will be pursuing a multifaceted approach to address the very issues that have prevented us from holding officers accountable when they improperly use deadly force. I am committed to effecting the change that is so desperately needed, and I will be unshakeable in my efforts to see it through.”
While the grand jury voted not to indict any officers, serious concerns about the actions of the Rochester Police Department (RPD) remain. Attorney General James issued a number of recommendations to the RPD to address these concerns, most notably related to its handling of mental health crises.
1) Law enforcement officers, emergency communications providers (dispatchers), and emergency medical service personnel must be trained to recognize the symptoms of excited delirium syndrome and to respond to it as a serious medical emergency. Daniel Prude was experiencing a mental health crisis and the RPD and the city of Rochester failed to ensure that trained mental health professionals responded to the scene. Mr. Prude was experiencing “excited delirium,” a condition often associated with the intake of drugs that can be characterized by irrational behavior and an increased heart rate that can put individuals at risk of death if subjected to stressful conditions.
Responding officers knew that Mr. Prude was experiencing a mental health crisis, yet the officers who ultimately restrained Mr. Prude were largely unfamiliar with how to handle this type of medical emergency. Since Executive Order 147 took effect in 2015, the Attorney General’s Office has repeatedly observed cases throughout the state with similar factual characteristics. Excited delirium is accepted as a medical emergency and it requires an immediate and coordinated response. It’s imperative that all police officers, emergency dispatch providers, and emergency medical technicians be trained to recognize the symptoms and trained to respond to this serious medical emergency.
2) All communities should assess models for responding to crisis situations that minimize or eliminate police responses to mental health calls whenever possible; passing “Daniel’s Law” would greatly aid in this endeavor. Rochester and all communities should create and implement models for responding to crisis situations that minimize or eliminate police responses to mental health calls whenever possible.
The City of Rochester recently released its policing reform proposal in response to Executive Order 203, which includes a new “Person in Crisis” (PIC) team pilot program that would constitute a “law enforcement alternative response to mental health, domestic violence, and other identified crisis calls” and would send trained social workers to calls, completely independent of police. Any effort to identify mental illness calls and divert them away from a law enforcement response and toward mental health specialists is critical, however, the city noted that PIC would only be dispatched if there were “no weapons or injuries, or no crime has been committed.”
As the model is presently constructed, Mr. Prude’s case would have been outside the purview of PIC’s response. Instead, Attorney General James recommends that the city consider a tiered approach in situations where a person is in emotional distress that takes into account any potential safety concerns. The passage of “Daniel’s Law” — named in honor of Daniel Prude — would make significant changes to the mental-health-response landscape in New York. Among its features, the law would establish mental health response units specifically trained and equipped to de-escalate mental health crises — including those involving, or precipitated by, substance abuse.
3) New York should mandate de-escalation training for all police officers, and police agencies should reflect a commitment to de-escalation in their use of force policies. Attorney General James again recommends that all police officers in New York state receive de-escalation training, which carries the potential to save lives in situations that might otherwise evolve into tragic uses of force. Early on in his interactions with RPD officers, Mr. Prude demonstrated that he was amenable to their requests and did not show any resistance. Rather than engage in de-escalation techniques, officers ultimately used force against Mr. Prude. Attorney General James urges the New York state legislature to act to require that all law enforcement officers in New York receive training in how to defuse incidents, using communications-based de-escalation, as a condition of their continued employment.
4) The City of Rochester should adopt a body worn camera release policy regarding critical incidents. The manner in which the body-worn camera footage was released in this case created community outrage, and Attorney General James has previously recommended that agencies develop policies about what information will be released to the public following police involved uses of force and when. As of February 23, 2021, the RPD has no written, publicly available policy governing the release of video in critical incidents. The RPD must adopt a policy governing release of body worn camera evidence following critical incidents.
5) Law enforcement agencies should explore the use of spit sock alternatives. Spit socks are widely used by members of law enforcement, emergency medical service providers, and hospital workers in order to restrict the flow of saliva from one individual to another and thereby reduce the spread of disease. The type of spit sock in use at the RPD is made of mesh and fits loosely around an individual’s head.
In this case, there was no evidence that the spit sock placed over Mr. Prude’s head directly contributed to his death — there was no evidence that the spit sock impeded Mr. Prude’s airflow or impaired his circulation. However, it clearly added to his stress and agitation, and it is unknown as to whether that further contributed to his death. In light of this, agencies should investigate whether alternatives to traditional spit socks, such as plastic face coverings worn by officers, might be a better alternative when dealing with highly agitated subjects.