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Review: No ethical lapses by Rochester mayor in Prude death

December 15, 2020 GMT

Rochester’s public integrity office said Tuesday it found no ethical lapses in the way Mayor Lovely Warren or senior staff members responded to the case of Daniel Prude, whose death in police custody led to weeks of protests and calls for Warren’s resignation.

The Office of Public Integrity conducted a narrow review of what the mayor and a handful of others knew about Prude’s death and when to determine whether they violated city policy or ethical standards. The office does not have authority to investigate sworn police officers.

The 54-page report largely corroborates Warren’s claims that she only became aware that Prude’s death in March involved the use of force when she was shown police body camera video on Aug. 4. She said then-Police Chief La’Ron Singletary, whom she later fired, initially misrepresented it as a drug overdose.

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The OPI findings were based on interviews with Warren, Deputy Mayor James Smith, Communications Director Justin Roj and Corporation Counsel Timothy Curtin, who were the focus of the review, as well as reviews of email and city issued cellphones.

The office did not have access to text messages that Warren and Curtin said they received from Singletary on their personal cellphones.

Singletary declined to be interviewed but his lawyer submitted a written statement, the report said.

“In summary, OPI did not find any evidence that a city employee within its jurisdiction was more aware or more involved in the city’s response to the death of Mr. Prude than each has publicly stated,” the report said.

The investigation was among a series of recommendations that grew out of an internal review of the city’s handling of Prude’s arrest, the details of which were unknown to the public until his family held a news conference in September and released police body camera video.

Attorney General Letitia James announced her own investigation days later.

The video, obtained through a public records request, showed officers who encountered Prude running naked through the street putting a “spit hood” over his head and pinning him to the pavement for two minutes until he stopped breathing. Prude, a Black man, died when he was taken off life support a week later.

The Monroe County medical examiner listed the manner of death as homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.”

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In the fallout, hundreds of protesters marched nightly, expressing outrage that city officials had previously kept quiet about Prude’s death. Seven police officers involved in the encounter with Prude were suspended. Police union officials have said the officers were strictly following department training and protocols.

Since then, Warren has been indicted on unrelated campaign finance fraud charges but remains in office. She has pleaded not guilty.

The OPI recommended the city establish a written policy outlining when senior staff should report critical events to the mayor.

“Currently, the decision to report and when to report such information is vague and to some extent left to the discretion” of staff, it said. “This approach increases the risk of senior leadership failing to meet the expectations of the mayor with respect to timely disclosure of such events.”

The report also recommended a restructuring of the city’s freedom of information process.