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Report: Key City Officials Knew Within Weeks of Daniel Prude Death

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

An independent investigation found that city officials suppressed information about the death of Daniel Prude after his encounter with Rochester Police officers. File photo

The independent investigation into what city officials knew about the death of Daniel Prude found that Mayor Lovely Warren likely was told by former Police Chief La’Ron Singletary on the day of the arrest that “substantial” physical restraint was used.

The investigation also found that Singletary downplayed the fact that Daniel Prude’s death had been caused by physical restraint.

The findings are included in an 84-page report released March 12 by Andrew Celli Jr., the independent investigator hired by City Council to look into communication within city government before Daniel Prude’s family went public in September.

“The Independent Investigator found that officials within Rochester’s City government suppressed information about the circumstances of the arrest and death of Daniel Prude between March 23, 2020 and September 2, 2020,” the report stated.

The finding was based on the chronology of events that were analyzed from March 23 through June 4, June 5 through Aug. 4 and Aug. 5 through Sept. 2.

“The Investigation revealed no explanation that fully accounts for the more than four-month delay between the death of an unarmed man at the hands of Rochester police, and public disclosure of the facts and circumstances under which the death occurred — other than a decision or series of decisions not to make such disclosure,” according to a statement from Celli, who led the investigation for the firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel, LLP. The italicized word “not” was part of the statement.

The report, the culmination of six months of work, details the findings and has a discussion of selected findings. It also provides several pages on the legislative basis for the investigation, documents reviewed and appendices that detail support for the findings and public statements that were referenced in the report.

The report and other documents are at rochesterinvestigation.com/.

A few hours after the report was released, Warren issued a statement that read in part:

“I welcome today’s report because it allows our community to move forward. Throughout City government, we have acknowledged our responsibility, recognized that changes are necessary and taken action. By creating our Person In Crisis teams, calling for the right to fire officers for cause, and reforming our FOIL and Body-Worn Camera processes, we are doing the work this moment demands. … “

City Council member Malik Evans, who was a liaison to Celli during the process but was not part of the investigation, released a statement that read in part:

“… At a time when many in the community have lost faith in government, unfortunately this report did little to restore confidence. The report makes clear that this tragedy was compounded by the fact information related to Daniel Prude’s death was not handled in an open and transparent manner. I share the community’s frustration that there was almost a five-month delay before they and all City Council Members received any information on this tragedy. … (I)t is my hope that together we can work to rebuild trust and transparency in government. This starts with always leveling with the community during good times and bad.”

Evans also is running for mayor.

The investigation looked at how the city government responded internally and externally to the arrest and death. Celli was charged with investigating how and why the death of unarmed Daniel Prude had been kept from the public and had anyone in city government suppressed information.

“The Investigation uncovered a great deal of evidence and reached specific, sometimes nuanced, conclusions,” Celli wrote in his statement. “Understanding that evidence and those conclusions requires consideration of the full Report, with time and attention to detail.”

Andrew Celli, top, questions former RPD Chief La’Ron Singletary via videoconference as part of the investigation. File photo

The report states that four city officials – Warren, Singletary, corporation counsel Tim Curtin and communications director Justin Roj – had learned by mid-April that police had restrained Daniel Prude during the arrest on March 23 and subsequently that he had died and the officers were the subject of a criminal investigation.

“In the final analysis, the decision not to publicly disclose these facts rested with Mayor Warren, as the elected Mayor of the City of Rochester,” the report stated. “But Mayor Warren alone is not responsible for the suppression of the circumstances of the Prude arrest and Mr. Prude’s death.”

Celli said potential reasons for nondisclosure – that the mayor didn’t know about the incident or that it was prohibited because of an investigation by the state Office of the Attorney General – were not supported by evidence.

He wrote that the decision to inform the public “is a policy judgment, and a political one, not a legal one. … Accordingly, it is not for the Special Council Investigator to pass judgment on whether the decisions by Rochester officials not to disclose the arrest and death of Daniel Prude were right or wrong. The judges of that question are the citizens of the City of Rochester and the public at large.”

The report said Singletary “disclosed but consistently deemphasized the role of police restraints” in the death and “his statements did not capture the disturbing tenor of the entire encounter.”

The report stated that Curtin discouraged Warren from disclosing the arrest after she saw the body-camera footage and that City Council member Mary Lupien, who had learned in July of the arrest from an attorney for the Prude family, did not speak out or alert city officials.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren on Sept. 14, 2020 announced reforms after Deputy Mayor James Smith, right, gave her a report about how officials handled the death of Daniel Prude. File photo

Celli wrote that in making the findings described in the report, he applied the “preponderance of the evidence” used in civil matters, meaning to prove that something is more likely than not true. He wrote that he “acted analogously to a judge or jury in a civil trial.”

The findings are laid out in a timeline, starting with March 23 when Warren and Singletary spoke by phone at about 8:30 a.m. about the arrest and that Daniel Prude was hospitalized in life-threatening condition.

On April 3, the city’s law department received a request from a lawyer for the Prude family to preserve all documents in the event of a possible lawsuit and a request under the Freedom of Information Law for all records of the arrest.

The report also stated that when Singletary told Warren of the report from the medical examiner, he de-emphasized the role of police restraint.

The report stated that by April 27, several people in city government knew Daniel Prude had died as a result of physical restraint and that the officers involved were under investigation by the state Office of the Attorney General. However, no city official suggested disclosing anything to City Council or the public.

Other findings in the report:

  • In early June, RPD pressured the city’s law department to withhold the body camera footage.
  • On July 30, the Prude family filed a notice of claim against the city, asserting that members of the RPD had cause Daniel Prude’s death and sought $75 million. Warren was not told of this until Aug. 4.
  • On Aug. 4, Warren, Curtin and other senior officials see the body camera footage. That same day, officials discuss officer discipline, public disclosure and the request through FOIL. Warren said she wanted the officer disciplined; Singletary disagreed because their actions were consistent with their training. Warren followed advice from Curtin, which the report said was flawed.
  • On Aug. 7, the law department attempted to settle the Prude claim. Around that time, Warren wrote to Singletary about her concerns over the arrest. (The report includes their email exchange.) Also around that time, Warren told City Council President Loretta Scott about the arrest and asked her to keep it confidential, citing the attorney general’s investigation.
  • On Sept. 2, the Prude family held a news conference to announce Daniel Prude’s death. The next day, Warren stated that prior to Aug. 4, she did not know about the physical restraint. The report said she knew on March 23.

The findings came from documents and testimony, and Celli’s evaluation of legal issues.

Celli devoted more than two dozen pages to a discussion of selected findings, including how Singletary characterized the cause of Daniel Prude’s death, how he disclosed the medical examiner’s preliminary findings to the mayor, whether the attorney general’s investigation was a reason to deny a FOIL request or not make public statements, the phone call in which Warren called Scott to tell her of the death and the suppression of information about the arrest and death of Daniel Prude.

He wrote that at times evidence was inconsistent or witness testimony contradictory. When that happened, he wrote, he “was required to weigh the competing evidence, including by assessing the quality of evidence on all sides of a disputed issue and the credibility of witnesses.” He also did research and “rendered legal judgments—including judgments that may differ from those reached or alleged to have been rendered in real time by attorneys involved in the underlying events.”