ROCHESTER — As police cracked down Friday and Saturday on surging protests over the death of Daniel Prude, activists have been calling on both Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and Police Chief La’Ron Singletary to resign.
But in a press conference Sunday, Warren recommitted herself to doing the work to improve the city’s response to mental health crises. She said the city will double the availability of mental health professionals and work with the RASE commission to re-envision the police department and how it responds to mental health crises.
She also expressed her support for Singletary, saying she wholeheartedly believes he is the right person to lead the Rochester Police Department. “I do not believe there’s another person more dedicated to changing the culture of policing than La’Ron,” she said.
Singletary, too, said he has no plans to resign.
The last four days have been the most tumultuous in Rochester in a generation, with thousands taking to the streets. Those people have protested not only the police tactics that led to Prude’s death but also the city’s failure to disclose what happened sooner.
City Council is poised to use its subpoena power to learn more about Prude’s death and the administration’s subsequent actions.
State Attorney General Letitia James pointedly rejected the city’s rationale for stalling its own internal investigation and keeping Prude’s death concealed from the public for more than five months.
The New York Civil Liberties Union and other activists have called for both Warren and Singletary to resign, and national media have questioned their leadership.
Both Warren and Singletary defended the sequence of events at the press conference, repeatedly mentioning the COVID-19 pandemic as a complicating factor in the situation.
“There will be an extensive review for this,” she said. “You will all see that this was done by the book.”
It all adds up to an unprecedented challenge for Warren, who also is the subject of an intensifying criminal investigation related to her campaign finance practices in her 2017 re-election campaign. Singletary, who had not spoken publicly since Wednesday, is in an equally tenuous position.
Two outside investigations
After months of inaction locally and an ongoing closed-door investigation by James’ office, the movement to compel testimony and documents related to Prude’s death has gained speed rapidly.
City Council member Mitch Gruber announced late Friday his desire to use Council’s subpoena power to sort out “the number of inconsistencies in recent testimonies and press conferences,” he wrote, echoing the local Black Agenda Group.
Council members Mary Lupien and Malik Evans have endorsed the use of subpoena power; Evans went further and called for an independent investigation. Council President Loretta Scott said Sunday that Council was “planning to move forward on” the use of subpoena power.
“Generally there’s support in engaging in any effort to get us as quickly as possible to the truth,” she said. “The community doesn’t believe that we’re being forthright or truthful. The idea is to have a very transparent process and one where there are assurances the truth is being told.”
Council has used its subpoena power just once before, in the Rickey Bryant case three years ago. In this case, Council will be seeking evidence from not only RPD but also Warren’s administration, meaning it will need to retain its own lawyer separate from Rochester Corporation Counsel Tim Curtin.
The attorney general’s office, too, has quickened the pace, announcing Saturday it would empanel a grand jury related to Prude’s death.
Curtin said Friday that the city kept the video secret even after Warren learned of it in early August only at the attorney general office’s request. The attorney general rebutted that claim in an unusually blunt statement and added that it had been prevented from interviewing the officers involved in the incident.
Warren said Sunday she supports the Council-initiated investigation.
Police actions at protests
As the protests have grown each night, Rochester police have doubled down on aggressive crowd control strategies, including the seemingly indiscriminate use of chemical irritants.
A number of protesters, including journalists and elected officials, have reported officers firing pepper balls at close range, hitting people in the torso or head and swamping them with noxious chemicals.
The department said in a press statement that officers began firing pepper balls only after a protester set off a firework. Some video evidence appears to contradict that sequence of events.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the response from RPD is completely disproportionate to whatever is coming from the protestors,” Gruber said Sunday. “One thing for sure: the pepper balls, or whatever they are deploying, are not supposed to be aimed at people’s head and shoulders.”
Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart said she was hit in the head with a pepper ball Saturday, leaving a large welt.
“I felt like I was in a war zone,” she said. “The police escalated the situation. I felt they put me in greater danger than the protesters.”
Warren Sunday defended the use of force to keep protesters away from the Public Safety Building, saying that people needed to appreciate its importance in serving the community. Neither she nor Singletary would make any promises about a reduced use of chemical irritants tonight or in the future.
Calls to resign
Warren on Thursday assigned most of the blame for the long period of silence to Singletary, saying he had misled her about the nature of the incident on March 23.
She said she did not intend to fire him.
In addition to the New York Civil Liberties Union, local activist groups Free the People ROC and Community Justice Initiative both called for their resignations.
The Democrat and Chronicle editorial board asked for Singletary’s resignation Friday, and the Washington Post editorial board wrote: “The fact that (Warren) didn’t act sooner after seeing the disturbing video, and the suggestion of a possible coverup, are among the issues that need to be addressed.”
Council President Scott, who until now has been a stalwart political ally of Warren, said she won’t make up her mind about requesting resignations until after the current investigations have been completed.
“I think we need to go through a process to get to the root of this and determine who’s responsible and who needs to be held accountable,” she said.
Includes reporting from staff writer Tracy Shchumacher.