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Daniel Prude's Family Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit Against Rochester Police Officers

A memorial, pictured in Sept. 2020, commemorated the site where Daniel Prude was arrested in Rochester, N.Y. Prude died of asphyxiation after being restrained by police in March, and his family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit nearly a year later.
Michael M. Santiago
Getty Images
A memorial, pictured in Sept. 2020, commemorated the site where Daniel Prude was arrested in Rochester, N.Y. Prude died of asphyxiation after being restrained by police in March, and his family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit nearly a year later.

The children of Daniel Prude are suing the city of Rochester, N.Y. and at least six police officers in federal court, alleging civil rights violations, gross negligence and wrongful death. The 41-year-old Black man died of asphyxiation last March after being restrained by police while he was in the midst of a mental health crisis.

Attorneys representing Nathaniel McFarland, one of Prude's five children and the administrator of his estate, filed the lawsuit on Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York.

In a 27-page complaint, the family says that Prude's death, and alleged attempts by the department and city officials to later cover it up, violated his constitutional rights protecting against unreasonable search and seizure. Officials also failed to adequately respond to his medical condition, the complaint states.

Prude's family also accuses the city of several systemic failures, including maintaining an "utterly broken" system of reviewing allegations of excessive force by police officers and not adopting training or policies to protect the rights of people experiencing mental health crises "despite obvious need."

"For years before Daniel's death, Rochester has maintained a policy of deliberate indifference to the rights of people of color who encounter its police officers, in particular those people experiencing mental health crises," the complaint reads. "As a result of the City's policy failures, people in Rochester have endured years of abuse, and vulnerable people like Daniel Prude have been killed."

Neither the Rochester city spokesperson nor the attorneys listed on the court docket as representing the city immediately responded to NPR's request for comment.

Prude's children are seeking unspecified compensatory damages, according to the complaint, "including the pecuniary value of their loss of support, nurturing, and guidance incurred as a result of the death of their father."

This is the second federal suit brought against city and police officials by Prude's family, as the Democrat & Chronicle reports. A similar lawsuit was brought by Prude's sister, but courts have since determined that his children — who were not acknowledged in that lawsuit — have the authority to sue on behalf of his estate.

"My father had a hard life, but he was a great dad. He always showed me and my brother and sisters how much he loved us," McFarland said in a statement, according to The Associated Press. "Our hearts are broken by his death, but this lawsuit has given us hope for the future."

The filing comes nearly a year after Prude's death, and two weeks after New York Attorney General Letitia James said a grand jury voted not to indict any of the officers involved.

Six Rochester police officers are named in the lawsuit: Mark Vaughn, Troy Taladay, Francisco Santiago, Michael Magri, Andrew Specksgoor and Josiah Harris. The defendants also include "other as-yet-unidentified Rochester police officers."

The filing lays out a timeline of the events on the evening of March 22 and early morning of March 23. Prude's family called 911 twice out of concern for his safety during an apparent mental health crisis — what they call a "fatal mistake."

The events of the arrest in the early hours of March 23 were captured in graphic police body camera footage that was widely publicized after its release in September.

After handcuffing Prude and ordering him to lie down naked on a snow-slicked road, officers placed a "spit hood" over his head and restrained him by pinning him down. Prude eventually lost consciousness and stopped breathing, and died in the hospital a week later after being taken off life support.

The lawsuit details how officers allegedly physically and verbally abused Prude instead of offering him much-needed assistance, for instance "chatting casually and making jokes at [his] expense" while he was lying on the ground, as well as laughing and repeating his words back to him "in a mocking way" as he "was rambling incoherently." It adds that the officers observing the abuse did not attempt to intervene.

The complaint also describes how, after pinning Prude down until he could no longer be heard gasping for air, officers were slow to notify the emergency medical technician on the scene and waited several minutes to uncuff his hands, rendering initial CPR efforts ineffective.

It describes the city's "broken" system for probing and disciplining incidents of excessive force, in which it says accused officers are investigated by fellow police officers and the police chief deemed "nearly every use of force incident ... justified, no matter how plainly egregious the conduct."

"As a result of the City's failure to meaningfully investigate or discipline officers who engage in excessive force, RPD officers can mete out force against citizens with impunity and take comfort in the fact their acts of violence will never be meaningfully scrutinized, even when those acts are captured on video," the complaint alleges.

Another section of the filing alleges that city policymakers did not implement appropriate training that would have prepared officers to "mitigate rather than aggravate the risk of harm" to Prude during his encounter with them.

Describing those policy failures as "deeply entrenched" the lawsuit notes that such incidents have continued even in the wake of the massive protests that followed the release of Prude's arrest footage last fall. At the end of January, Rochester police officers handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl while responding to a family disturbance call.

More recently, as member station WXXI reported, an officer was placed on administrative leave after the department on Friday released body camera footage of a February incident in which a Black woman was pepper-sprayed while she was with her young child.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.
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