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Former Rochester, N.Y., Police Chief Testifies About Daniel Prude Case

Former Rochester, N.Y., Police Chief La'Ron Singletary, pictured at a press conference in September, was terminated from the department later that month. He is giving a deposition to members of the Rochester City Council investigating the death of Daniel Prude in police custody in March.
Michael M. Santiago
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Former Rochester, N.Y., Police Chief La'Ron Singletary, pictured at a press conference in September, was terminated from the department later that month. He is giving a deposition to members of the Rochester City Council investigating the death of Daniel Prude in police custody in March.

Updated 3:28 p.m. ET

Former Rochester, N.Y., Police Chief La'Ron Singletary is appearing before Rochester City Council members on Friday as part of its investigation into the death of Daniel Prude last year.

Prude, a Black man from Chicago with a history of mental illness, died of asphyxiation after an encounter with officers from the Rochester Police Department in March. However, details surrounding his death did not come to light for about six months, sparking allegations of a cover-up and igniting protests calling for justice and police accountability.

Prude's death has beenruled a homicideby the Monroe County, N.Y., medical examiner.

Singletary said during his deposition, which was held by video conference because of coronavirus safety protocols, that he spoke to Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren twice on March 23, the day of the Prude encounter with police.

He said he informed her that three officers found Prude naked in the cold, that he appeared to be experiencing mental distress and was "making irrational statements." The officers held Prude to the ground while he was handcuffed and had placed a mesh covering called a "spit sock" (also referred to as a "spit hood"), over his head to prevent him from spitting and biting.

The mayor and the chief also had a discussion about Prude being under the influence of the mind-altering drug PCP and that after he was transported to the hospital his condition "was not good."

A little more than a week later, on March 31, Singletary said he texted the mayor to inform her that the "gentleman likely high on PCP from Chicago" had died the night before. He also told her the medical examiner's office would determine cause of death at some point.

"Never did I ever state that this was a drug overdose," Singletary said. "The reason for me notifying the mayor was that police officers were involved in this incident."

This appeared to contradict public statements Lovely made this summer.

"After our police department responded to the 911 call on March 23, I was informed later that day by Chief Singletary that Mr. Prude had an apparent drug overdose while in custody," Warren told reporters Sept 3.

She added then that Singletary never informed her of the actions of RPD officers, who forcibly restrained Prude a month before, when attorneys for Prude's family requested the police video.

Singletary said Friday that after reviewing the police video in March, he and his command staff didn't find anything that was "outwardly egregious" in the officers' behavior during the Prude encounter.

"There was no strikes or punches or anything excessive at that particular point in time" and even though a preliminary review of the incident was under way, no one in RPD leadership thought it was necessary to take the officers involved off patrol duty, Singletary said.

"And after he died you didn't change your view and take the officers off the street at that point, right? " Attorney Andrew Celli, the chief investigator of the Rochester City Council Independent Investigation Special Committee, asked Singletary.

The former police chief said no, but added that leadership did have a discussion about it after Prude died, but took no action.

A tense time for Rochester

Singletary's testimony comes at a particularly tense time for the city, as Rochester has been thrust into the national spotlight following another police encounter, this time involving a nine-year-old girl.

The child, who is Black and has not been named, was handcuffed, placed into a police squad car and pepper-sprayed as she called out repeatedly for her father. The incident on Jan. 29 also sparked protests in the city this week, though not as large as the demonstrations last year as details of Prude's death became known.

City officials announced this week that three officers involved in the pepper spray incident have been removed from patrol duties. During the department's investigation, two officers have been placed on administrative leave, and the other officer has been suspended.

Singletary's testimony was a deposition, and only Celli posed questions. Council members Michael Patterson and Malik Evans, both Democrats, presided but did not question Singletary.

Evans announced last month he was running for mayor against incumbent Lovely Warren. The mayor, also a Democrat, has faced sustained criticism for her administration's handling of Prude's death. She is also facing criminal charges of campaign finance violations unrelated to the Prude case.

Lovely has entered a not guilty plea to the charges, and has resisted calls for her resignation.

The New York Attorney General's Office is also conducting a separate investigation into Prude's death.

Warren fired Singletary in September, days after he said he and the entire Rochester Police Department command staff were planning to resign from the post as protests over Prude's death grew.

Before Singletary was terminated, attorneys for the Prude family released police video of Prude's encounter with police.

The night of the incident Prude's brother had called 911 to report he was missingand experiencing a mental health crisis.

"Daniel was very charismatic," Joe Prude told NPR's Morning Edition in September. "He was a good dude all the way around. He was down to earth, a good generous man at heart."

He said his brother left the house in below-freezing temperatures, wearing only long johns and a tank top. He said Prude was having suicidal thoughts and had just been released from Rochester's Strong Memorial Hospital.

Joe Prude added that he called police because he was concerned about his brother's safety.

When police encountered Prude, he was naked and there are reports that he was ranting about having contracted the coronavirus. Officers handcuffed Prude, but at one point he grew agitated and tried to get up. Officers ordered him to lay back on the ground before placing the mesh covering over his head.

Officers then held his head to the ground. Prude died several days later.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.