Two months before the death of George Floyd launched a summer of protests, riots, and demands for police reform, officers in Rochester, New York, handcuffed Daniel T. Prude in the middle of the street, put a bag over his head, and pinned the naked man onto the street while he panicked. This continued until Prude stopped breathing. He ultimately died.
The general public is finding out about the incident this week because Prude’s family and local activists released police body-camera video of the incident on Wednesday.
According to reporting from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and The New York Times, police responded to a 911 call on March 23 from Prude’s brother. Prude, who had recently been taken to the hospital for mental health issues, had run out of his home and was behaving erratically.
When Rochester police responded to the call, they found him running in the street. Somebody else had in the meantime called 911 to say that a naked man had tried to break into a car. Police believe he also broke windows at a nearby business. According to the Democrat and Chronicle, Prude encountered several other people during his journey and even begged one to call 911 for him.
The body camera footage shows Prude clearly in a state of distress when the officers confront him. They order Prude to the ground with his hands behind his back, and he complies immediately. He never tries to get physical with them, but his behavior remains erratic: He yells at the officers, he starts spitting, and he claims to have the coronavirus. The officers then put him in what they call a “spit hood.” (The Times notes that these hoods have been involved in 70 deaths in the past decade and have been cited in police lawsuits.)
Prude yells “Gimme that gun!” at the officers and demands one officer’s Taser. Eventually they press Prude to the ground, pushing his head into the pavement. The time stamps on the video show he was held down for about 3 minutes. An emergency medical technician arrives, but the officers don’t mention that Prude isn’t moving. Three minutes later, the EMT asks the officers to roll Prude over, and that’s when they realize that he’s no longer breathing.
After that, Prude was given CPR and loaded into an ambulance. He was actually revived for a time, but he was declared brain dead due to the lack of oxygen. On March 30, he was removed from life support and died.
Here’s an edited version of the video from the Democrat and Chronicle:
A subsequent toxicology report showed low levels of PCP in Prude’s bloodstream, which could have explained some of his behavior. The autopsy report attributed Prude’s death to “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint due to excited delirium due to acute [PCP] intoxication.”
“Excited delirium” is a controversial diagnosis that is not actually recognized by the American Medical Association or the American Psychiatric Association; it seems to occur primarily—perhaps even exclusively—during encounters with law enforcement. (Read more here on the sordid history of the term and its use to justify violent interactions with people in a drug-induced or mental health crisis.)
In the video, one EMT and an officer on the scene affirm to each other that Prude was under the influence of “excited delirium.” The EMT assures the officer, “It’s not you guys’s fault.”
None of the officers involved have been disciplined, but the New York attorney general’s office is investigating the death. More than 100 protesters gathered Wednesday afternoon in Rochester, and nine were arrested and cited with misdemeanor charges in clashes with police.
Prude’s case is a prime example of what policing reform activists mean when they call for hanging the role of policing so that people with guns and Tasers are not the first responders to somebody having a mental health or drug crisis.