ROCHESTER, N.Y. >> Daniel Prude appeared to be spiraling into crisis in the hours before police handcuffed him on a city street in March, then pinned the naked man face down.
The 41-year-old had been thrown off a train the day before for disruptive behavior. He was sent to a hospital for a mental health evaluation after he was said to have expressed suicidal thoughts. Prude apparently stopped breathing as police in Rochester, New York, were restraining him and died when he was taken off life support a week later.
Prude’s death and the actions of the police officers — who covered the man’s head with a “spit hood” during the confrontation — have intensified the debate over whether police should be responding to calls about people suffering mental health crises.
Activists who have marched nightly in this city by Lake Ontario since police body camera videos of the encounter were released Wednesday say more needs to be done to hold the city accountable and to help others like Prude.
“That was was a distress call for help,” said his older brother, Joe Prude. “He wanted somebody to grab him up and help him, not sit here and mock him and taunt him, laugh at him like a piece of meat. And that’s what they did.”
A union leader today defended the officers involved in the encounter, saying they were strictly following department training and protocols, including using the mesh hood to stop Prude from spitting.
“To me, it looks like they were watching the training in front of them and doing step by step what the training says to do,” said Michael Mazzeo, president of the Locust Club. “If there’s a problem with that, let’s change it.”
Family members insisted the man seen shouting in muffled anguish does not capture the loving one they knew.
Prude lived in Chicago, and relatives said he worked at a bakery and a factory. They said he was generous and liked playing basketball and Call of Duty. His 18-year-old daughter Tashyra Prude said he was happy the last time she saw him on March 18.
“It’s painful beyond words for people to know him as just a man on the video because there was so much more to him,” Tashyra Prude said in an interview. “The man on a video is presented as helpless and in need of support. But the man that I knew prior to that was not like that. My father was always energetic. He was happy-go-lucky. He was the person that made everybody laugh. “
Prude had been behind bars several times over the decades. Chicago Police reported 37 arrests and nine convictions since 1995, eight for drug- and alcohol-related charges and one for burglary. Police said there was nothing on his record suggesting he was particularly violent. In most of the cases, Illinois Department of Corrections records show that he was paroled out of prison after serving less than a year.
Just before his encounter with police, he was living with his sister in Chicago, but was having mental health problems for the first time in his life, so he headed east to his brother’s house in Rochester, said attorney Elliot Shields, who is representing Joe Prude.
But he was thrown off the train at a station about an hour short of Rochester. Joe Prude had to pick his brother up at a shelter in Buffalo.
Daniel Prude began acting out at his brother’s house, going under furniture, jumping down stairs head-first and accusing his relatives of wanting to kill him. He was taken to a hospital that evening for a mental health evaluation, though he was released a few hours later, according to police reports and body camera videos.
He seemed fine when he got back but then suddenly bolted from his brother’s house.
“I don’t know if he was playing with me the whole time,” Joe Prude told an officer who responded to his call. He worried his younger brother was under the influence of PCP and might hurt himself.
Joe Prude said his brother left the house wearing no shoes and no coat, just a tank top and long johns on a cold night. Police found him naked just after 3 a.m. on a commercial street blocks from his brother’s house.
Police videos show Prude sitting on the street, hands cuffed behind his back. He repeatedly shouts for a gun, prays to Jesus, and asks the officers to let him get up. An ambulance is summoned to the scene.
Just as it arrives, police cover Prude’s head with a hood designed to protect them from being spit on. Prude is enraged and demands that they take it off.
When he tries to stand, he is shoved down. One apparently white officer holds his head down against the pavement urging Prude to “calm down.” Another officer places a knee on his back.
Prude’s anguish cries become muffled under the hood and fade into whimpering. He appears to vomit and grows still. “He feels pretty cold,” says one officer. Temperatures hovered around freezing that morning and a light snow was falling.
At no point do police cover his body.
A medical examiner concluded that Prude’s death was a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” The report lists excited delirium and acute intoxication by phencyclidine, or PCP, as contributing factors.
New York Attorney General Letitia James’ office is investigating, as is typical is such cases. Seven Rochester police officers involved were suspended Thursday by the city’s mayor.
Mazzeo said officers deal far too often with these types of situations and need more help.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets of this city of 210,000 two nights in a row. Officers on Thursday night doused activists at police headquarters with a chemical spray and repeatedly fired an irritant into the crowd to drive them from barricades around the building.
Community activists today decried those tactics, and some are calling for legislation that would ensure mental health professionals respond to mental health emergencies.
“We do not need violent workers with guns to respond to mental health crises,” Stanley Martin, an organizer of Free the People Rochester, told reporters.