A civil rights lawsuit was filed on Monday against city officials and police in Rochester, New York, alleging decades of “inhumane” violence and police discrimination against protesters and residents. The case comes more than a year after the death of Daniel Prude in police custody, prompting the country to criticize police use in the city.
“In short, a remarkable history spanning more than forty years shows that practices in the Rochester Police Department continue to be violent, racist, and hostile to civilized civil society,” the case said.
The case, filed by a group of lawyers, activists and protesters in the city, alleges that Rochester police often use excessive force on young people, especially during protests, and that departmental and city officials have refrained from doing so. The nearly 100-page document highlights more than 50 instances where police are accused of harassing white people, most of whom have never been formally disciplined.
As an example of a pattern of suspected behavior, the case focused heavily on the use of force by protesters, doctors, journalists and legal observers who took to the streets in September 2020 to protest Prude’s death.
Prude, a Black man, died last March after suffering a mental illness and her family called police for help. At about 3:15 a.m. on March 23, Rochester police said they found Prude lying naked in the middle of the road.
While Prude obeyed their orders to lie on her stomach and agree to be handcuffed, she then sat down and started shouting at police, according to camera footage of the interaction. Police then spat on his head and pressed his face to the ground for more than three minutes. Prude was left speechless, and later died at the hospital.
A medical examiner identified his death as a homicide, citing it as “problems of asphyxia in a state of physical inactivity,” and “happy delirium” and PCP intoxication. The chief justice refused to charge the police involved in Prude’s death in February.
The circumstances surrounding Prude’s death were not made public until September 2020, when Prude’s family released camera footage of the incident at a press conference on September 2. The news sparked outrage quickly and the first protest took place later that night.
During the protests and protests in the weeks that followed, the case alleges that Rochester police used “excessive and unnecessary force” including tear gas, pepper spray, sharp projectiles, pepper balls and other “non-passive” weapons. During the first three nights of the protest, authorities used 77 tear gas canisters and 6,100 peppercorns, the case said.
“To put it bluntly, what I saw was shocking, homicides and unreasonable torture,” Rochester journalist Reynaldo DeGuzman, who attended the protests, told a press conference at the forum, according to CBS affiliate WROC.
Rochester police use Pepper’s spray and tear gas as protesters gather in Rochester, New York, on September 5, 2020, on the fourth night of protest following the release of a video showing the death of Daniel Prude.
MARANIE R. STAAB / AFP BY IMAGES
The court has many details of alleged police violence in protests, including the September 3 incident in which an officer who allegedly shot a man with a pepper ball “close by,” left him completely blind. Police are accused of deliberately shooting “doctors” who were trying to provide assistance – even though they were allegedly wearing bright red jackets to identify themselves.
On September 4, Rochester became like a “military base,” with police “dropping bombs, tear gas, and thousands of pepper balls on a crowd,” the lawsuit said.
That night, police allegedly caught a group of protesters on a bridge – a tactic known as “kettling” – before attacking them with multiple weapons. “The videos that came out that night show the most powerful police weapons using pepper balls, 40mm kinetic ammunition, tear gas, and belts to attack various protesting groups with only umbrellas, cardboard boxes, and plastic children’s slings fighting RPD weapons,” the case said.
“In New York City, for example, when thousands of protesters took to the streets, NYPD officials did not shoot a single ball,” the case added. “In contrast, one RPD officer on the night of September 4, 2020, fired 148 pepper balls in just twenty minutes.”
Protests continue in New York over the assassination of Daniel Prude
Protesters use umbrellas to protect the tear gas fired by Rochester police during the Daniel Prude protests in Rochester, New York, United States on September 5, 2020.
TAYFUN COSKUN / ANADOLU AGENCY VIA GETTY IMAGES
The case also alleges that city officials used the “internal disciplinary system” and refused to arrest officials who used excessive force during protests or in their daily work.
Of the 923 public allegations of abuse of power between 2001 and 2016, a police officer received only 1.7%, the case said. The maximum penalty imposed on those 16 cases was “six suspensions, most from 1 to 20 days.”
“By failing to train, oversee, and punish authorities who abuse power instead of suppressing evidence of official misconduct and attacking critics of the department, the City has promoted a culture of violence and non-punishment in its structures,”