Top police leaders in Rochester, New York, announce retirements amid protests over the handling of the suffocation death of Daniel Prude, whose family alleges cover-up by law enforcement.

Rochester police chief La'Ron Singletary, right, seen before a community meeting in Rochester, NY, on September 3, 2020.
Rochester police chief La'Ron Singletary, right, seen before a community meeting in Rochester, NY, on September 3, 2020. (AP)

Rochester, New York's police chief has abruptly resigned along with his command staff, saying there had been a "mischaracterisation and politicisation" of his actions following the death of Black American Daniel Prude in police custody.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren told a City Council meeting on Tuesday that she had not asked Chief La’Ron Singletary to resign, though she said there was "information that was brought to light today that I have not previously seen before." 

She did not elaborate.

Tension's over Black man's death

Rochester, a city of 200,000 people on Lake Ontario, erupted with protests last week after Prude's family released body camera footage showing officers had used a mesh hood and pinned the 41-year-old Black man, to the pavement during the March arrest.

When officers arrived, Prude, who was suffering from a psychotic episode at the time, was unarmed and naked in the road, according to the video.

Police ordered an initially compliant Prude to get on the ground, but after being handcuffed he became increasingly agitated.

Officers then put a "spit hood" on him, because he said he had contracted the coronavirus, and forced his head to the pavement. Moments later he lost consciousness.

He died in a hospital a week later, when life support was switched off.

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Possible cover-up

The release of the footage five months after Prude's death had raised questions of a possible cover-up and turned Rochester into the latest flashpoint in a summer of protests over racial injustice first sparked by George Floyd's May 25 death.

Seven police officers involved in the arrest were suspended last week.

"As a man of integrity, I will not sit idly by while outside entities attempt to destroy my character," Singletary said in a statement, noting his 20 years on the force.

"The mischaracterisation and the politicization of the actions that I took after being informed of Mr. Prude’s death is not based on facts, and is not what I stand for."

Singletary, 40, was named as police chief of Rochester in April 2019. 

Investigation

Attorney General James announced on Saturday she would form a grand jury to investigate Prude's death, a preliminary step to a possible indictment.

Local media said an autopsy ruled the death a homicide caused by "complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint."

The report also listed a low level of the drug PCP in Prude's blood.

The revelation of Prude's death sparked protests in Rochester and New York City demanding justice for the victim and reforms in the Rochester police department.

Prude's death has grim echoes of those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, also black Americans who died in police incidents and whose deaths unleashed a wave of anti-racism demonstrations that have rocked the US since May.

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BLM group welcomes resignations

The mayor said she was unsure when the retirements would take effect.

Free the People ROC, a local Black Lives Matter group, welcomed the resignations in a Facebook post but demanded more.

"Let's keep the pressure up until all those responsible for Daniel Prude's murder and cover-up, including Mayor Lovely Warren, have resigned, taken responsibility and donated their pensions to the families they allowed to be harmed," it wrote.

Warren apologised to the Prude family last week and suggested she had been misled by Singletary, an allegation he denied. 

Singletary also pointed to his ordering of an internal investigation soon after the incident.

The Rochester police union's head, Michael Mazzeo, defended the officers last week, saying they followed the procedure in using the so-called "spit hood," necessary because Prude claimed he had the coronavirus.

Mazzeo also said Singletary's office told him after the arrest there were "no concerns" with the officers' actions. 

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies