ROCHESTER, N.Y. – This city’s top police officials on Tuesday announced plans to step down amid an ongoing controversy about their department’s treatment of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died in police custody while suffering a mental health crisis, days after video footage was released showing officers putting a hood on him and pinning him to the ground.
The retirements and voluntary demotions came as the city on the shores of Lake Ontario has been gripped by protests. While the 41-year-old’s death occurred in March, it received little notice until the footage was released by his family’s attorneys last week, adding to the nationwide outcry as another Black man died after an encounter with police.
The demonstrations in Rochester marked the latest flash point in the United States’ summer of protest, which began when George Floyd was filmed in May as he begged for air while pinned under a Minneapolis police officer’s knee. Cities from coast to coast have since experienced social justice protests – some of them violent – amid scrutiny on police tactics and calls to cut police funding and shift more money to social services, especially for mental health.
Prude’s death continued to roil Rochester’s department, with seven police officers suspended from the city’s force and New York’s attorney general saying she would impanel a grand jury as part of an ongoing investigation. Then came the abrupt twin retirements on Tuesday of Police Chief La’Ron Singletary and Deputy Chief Joseph Morabito, who joined a growing cadre of top police officials who have stepped down or have been forced out in cities where protest and outcry about the nation’s policing have not subsided. Chiefs in Atlanta, Louisville and Seattle lost their jobs or resigned amid the public outcry, and also on Tuesday, the police chief in Dallas announced her plans to step down later this year.
Singletary, 40, a 20-year veteran of the force, released a statement describing the past week as full of personal attacks and “mischaracterization” regarding his role in handling Prude’s death.
“As a man of integrity, I will not sit idly by while outside entities attempt to destroy my character,” Singletary said.
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren on Tuesday told the City Council that Singletary “was not asked to give his resignation.” She did not elaborate further when addressing the council during what was slated to be a virtual briefing about police relations with protesters. In a statement afterward, Warren said that “the timing and tenor of these resignations is difficult” and that Singletary would remain through the end of the month.
While Warren, a Democrat, had told the council that “the entire command staff has decided to retire,” the police department later said three officials retired – Singletary, Morabito and Fabian Rivera, a commander – while two other officials, a deputy chief and a commander, were returned to their previous rank of lieutenant, a lower position within the department.
In response to Singletary’s retirement, a Rochester police union said its members remained focused on their work despite what the union called “the lack of support and leadership that we are witnessing coming from our elected officials in City Hall.”
Warren had responded to protests and criticism about how public officials addressed Prude’s death with promises to implement changes, provide more mental health resources and move the city’s crisis intervention team from the police force to another department. She has said Singletary told her that Prude died of an apparent drug overdose in custody.
Joe Prude has said he called 911 in March when his brother vanished from the house and has criticized officials for what happened.
“I didn’t call them to come help my brother die,” he told NPR. “I called them to come help me get my brother some help.”
Antonio Romanucci, an attorney for Prude’s family, called Singletary’s retirement an important step and said Prude’s treatment “was inhumane, and the subsequent coverup was unacceptable.”
The developments in Rochester came as officials in Utah were facing similar scrutiny for how they responded to a call about someone who was experiencing a mental health issue over the weekend. An anguished mother said she called for help when her 13-year-old son was having a mental crisis; a responding officer shot and seriously injured the boy.
Both cases have added to the mounting pressure on authorities to rethink how American policing functions – and, once again, have raised questions about the practice of sending armed officers to handle calls related to mental health.
A key part of the ongoing debate about policing and the calls to shift funding away from police and toward social services focuses on these issues, an area that offers some unlikely common ground between those calling to defund police and law enforcement officials.
“There’s a lot of agreement here,” said Alex Vitale, the author of “The End of Policing,” who is scheduled to address the Rochester City Council on Wednesday on policing issues.
Changing who responds to mental health calls is a core aim of the defunding movement, he said, while rank-and-file officers and many police officials would be “very happy to have someone take this off their plate.”
About 1 in 5 American adults had a mental illness in 2018, while fewer than half of those people received treatment that year, according to federal data.
In many cases, people with friends or loved ones in crisis reflexively call police for help – sometimes leading to tragedy.
“When someone’s in crisis, what do people think?” said Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works with police agencies. “They think call 911 and they’ll get help. That’s a strength, and that’s a weakness. The strength is if you have an emergency, you know who to call. The weakness is that the police may not always be the best to respond.”
Such responses have also accounted for a significant share of the people shot and killed by police each year. Since 2015, more than a fifth of the people fatally shot by on-duty police officers were in the throes of a mental health crisis, according to The Washington Post’s database that tracks such incidents.
This year, police have shot and killed at least 101 people with mental health issues or crises, according to The Washington Post’s database.
The push to change how law enforcement responds to mental health crises is underway nationwide. Few communities, however, have actually made the pivot to a system that doesn’t involve armed officers.
Albuquerque – New Mexico’s largest city – is attempting to lead the way.
The city of more than half a million people was notorious for questionable use of force by its officers and for conditions at its jail. A 2013 Justice Department investigation found a “culture of aggression” among officers that had led to brutal arrests, dozens of police shootings and a flurry of expensive lawsuits.
With a federal monitor reviewing police operations, the city has initiated a number of changes. Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, has sought to take them further. The changes under his tenure include new responses to public inebriation and homelessness that de-emphasize the role of armed officers.
Soon the city will be taking a more dramatic step, initiating a new response to 911 calls that’s separate from the police or fire departments. Starting in the new year, the Community Safety Department will be responsible for responding to calls, including mental health crises, that do not require an armed officer and would benefit more from an unarmed responder trained in such areas as psychology, social work and de-escalation.
Instead of showing up in a police car, lights flashing, they will arrive at the scene in an orange sedan.
“This is the biggest change in public safety in the modern history of our city,” Keller told The Post. “It’s refocusing. It’s reallocating. It’s decriminalizing interactions.”
The new approach, Keller said, is intended as a response to demands from protesters who have sought fundamental change to public safety. It’s also a way to ease burdens on an underfunded and undermanned police department, he said.
Police leaders have been supportive, and city officials found the money to fund the change.
“We can do pilot projects for 10 years, or we can fundamentally rethink the way we do basic safety responses in our community,” Keller said. “We’d rather experiment with a systemic change, a holistic public health model, instead of just continuing to nibble around the edges.”
Barron Jones, New Mexico policy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the new response system is “a good first step.” He praised the city for getting input from a broad spectrum of citizens as it builds the new department.
Keller said he has had discussions with numerous mayors who are considering similar changes. But the challenges of setting up an entirely new staff devoted to mental health and other social issues can be daunting, especially as cities navigate the budget-busting realities of the coronavirus pandemic.
Vitale, who is also a sociology professor at Brooklyn College, said the issues now facing communities date back decades, when state mental health hospitals and systems were dismantled. Since then, he said, the number of people in crisis and calls about them have soared.
How police respond is “all over the map,” he said, since the United States has about 18,000 local police departments.
“Some receive very little training,” he said. “Others receive very extensive training. And the research shows it doesn’t matter.”
Wexler said calls about people in crisis can vary widely, ranging from someone who may be having more of a medical emergency to a person who might be a threat to themselves or others.
Wexler said the best outcome might involve a hybrid model, noting Tucson, Ariz., where he said police have a mental health official in their dispatch center to help with calls.
“The police don’t need to own these calls,” Wexler said. “So when people talk about, is there a better response? – the answer is, there could be, but until we find that out, we need to figure out what do we do today about these calls.”
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Berman and Witte reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Tim Craig and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.
Video: http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/national/body-cam-video-in-daniel-prude-case-shows-rochester-police-placing-hood-over-prude/2020/09/03/77c4e0b8-f00c-4b8c-b8aa-c398733f7b9b_video.html(The Washington Post)
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