ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The city’s police chief and several of his department’s highest ranking officials resigned or were demoted on Tuesday in the aftermath of the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who suffocated after he had been placed in a hood by Rochester police officers and pinned to the ground.
The sudden retirements of the police chief, La’Ron D. Singletary, the deputy chief, Joseph Morabito, and a commander, as well as the demotions of another deputy chief and commander, came three days after the state attorney general announced that she would impanel a grand jury to consider evidence in Mr. Prude’s death.
“As a man of integrity, I will not sit idly by while outside entities attempt to destroy my character,” the police chief said in a statement. He later added: “The mischaracterization and the politicization of the actions that I took after being informed of Mr. Prude’s death is not based on facts, and is not what I stand for.”
Officials in Rochester had not publicly disclosed the death of Mr. Prude, 41, until an open records request by his family prompted the city to turn over officers’ body camera footage that revealed his struggle, naked and hooded, at the hands of the police. Mr. Prude’s family in recent days has accused officials of covering up his death to protect the police officers involved.
Chief Singletary, who will step down at the end of September, denied any wrongdoing on the part of the officers, even as seven were suspended last week. As recently as Sunday, he vowed to work to improve community relations in the department “to prevent this from ever happening again.”
Mayor Lovely Warren announced the departures in a video call to the Rochester City Council. “The entire Rochester Police Department command staff has announced their retirement,” she said. The mayor said she had not requested the chief’s resignation, but added that he had acknowledged that the events “could’ve been handled differently.”
“But he didn’t in any way try to cover this up,” she said.
She said the resignation followed “new information that was brought to light today that I had not previously seen before.” She did not elaborate.
Also on Tuesday, Mr. Prude’s sister, Tameshay Prude, filed a civil rights lawsuit in United States District Court for the Western District of New York against the City of Rochester, Chief Singletary and the officers involved in the encounter.
The lawsuit singled out several officers on the scene that morning, including Officer Mark Vaughn, who held Mr. Prude’s head to the pavement.
The lawsuit and the resignations are the latest developments in an explosive week in Rochester since the release of the body camera footage showing Mr. Prude’s encounter with the police.
Mr. Prude arrived in Rochester by train from Chicago and to his brother’s home on March 22. He was behaving so erratically, paranoid and hallucinating, that his brother, Joe Prude, had him admitted to a hospital for evaluation. But Mr. Prude was released hours later, and early the morning of March 23, he bolted from the home and into the streets.
Officers found him naked and ranting; a witness said he heard Mr. Prude claim he had the coronavirus, then on the sharp rise in New York. He was handcuffed without incident, seated in the street. But when he began spitting and ignored orders to stop, officers pulled a so-called spit hood over his head.
Mr. Prude became agitated and tried to rise, and officers restrained him by pushing his head into the street and placing a knee on his torso, according to footage from the body cameras.
Officer Vaughn “put both his hands on the side of Mr. Prude’s head and pushed down with his full body weight — essentially in a triangle push-up or ‘tripod’ position,” the lawsuit states. “The body-worn camera recordings show that Vaughn remains in this position — pushing his full body weight down on Mr. Prude’s head — for over two minutes and 15 seconds.”
Mr. Prude stopped breathing and his heart stopped beating. Paramedics revived him and took him to a hospital, where he died March 30.
Hours after the incident, Chief Singletary told Ms. Warren that a person had suffered a drug overdose while in custody, Ms. Warren said last week. But a county autopsy report labeled Mr. Prude’s death a homicide caused by complications of asphyxiation in a prone position.
Chief Singletary was promoted to the department’s top position last year after serving 19 years with the department. Just 38 years old at the time, he was among the youngest police chiefs in the city’s history.
“He’s been — his whole life — wanting to be a police officer,” his cousin, Karen Frazer Crawford, said at the time.
The union that represents the police force, The Rochester Police Locust Club, said that its leadership was caught by surprise by the retirements and demotions.
“What is clear is that the problems of leadership go directly to the mayor’s office,” the union said in a statement. “Our members remain focused and committed to serving the citizens of this city, despite the lack of support and leadership that we are witnessing coming from our elected officials in City Hall.”
Protests have taken place in the streets since the release of the video. On Tuesday, the mayor told reporters that keeping the protests safe was a top priority.
“I want to assure our community that the Rochester Police Department will continue to serve and protect our residents and our neighborhoods,” Ms. Warren said during a brief appearance at City Hall.
“While the timing and tenor of these resignations is difficult, we have faced tough times before,” she added. “We will get through this together.”
The City Council president, Loretta Scott, said the retirements and demotions were disturbing and unexpected.
“Personnel changes happen, but the timing of it is what makes it a bit disturbing,” Ms. Scott said as she met with reporters on Tuesday afternoon. She said the council would keep the protesters’ demands in mind when it looked for a new police chief.
“The systems need to change” Ms. Scott said. “We won’t lose focus of that.”
Sarah Maslin Nir contributed reporting from New York.