New York's attorney general said Sunday that her office will begin "proactively" releasing police body camera video when unarmed civilians die at the hands of officers, a move prompted by the suffocation this year of Daniel Prude in Rochester.
State Attorney General Letitia James said the new policy, which is effective immediately and aims to bring more transparency to investigations that her office is handling, will no longer allow local police agencies to determine when to release video.
"This process has caused confusion, delays and has hampered transparency in a system that should be as open as possible," she said. Instead of waiting "months and months," James said, her office's special prosecutions unit will begin releasing video after it has been shown to victims' relatives.
James said the policy was necessary to "avoid the situation that occurred" in Rochester, where Prude, 41, died in March after he was handcuffed and a spit hood was placed over his head because he said he had Covid-19. Disturbing body camera video shows the confrontation between several officers and Prude, who was suffering from mental health and drug problems, according to his brother.
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In the video, Prude is seen lying on a street, naked, with an officer's knee pressed into his back. He stopped breathing and was taken off life support a week later.
The video wasn't released until Sept. 4, long after his family had requested it and after police commanders had urged city officials to deny them access. Records released last week showed that in early June, Deputy Chief Mark Simmons made an apparent reference to protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, saying there could be "violent blowback" if video of Prude's death was released in the "current climate."
"We certainly do not want people to misinterpret the officers' actions and conflate this incident with any recent killings of unarmed black men by law enforcement nationally," Simmons wrote in an email to then-Chief La'Ron Singletary.
Seven police officers were suspended Sept. 3 over Prude's death, and the department's command staff announced their retirements on Sept. 8, but Mayor Lovely Warren fired Singletary before the retirement took effect. She said an initial look at how authorities had handled the incident showed that "we have a pervasive problem" in the department.
"It shows that Mr. Prude's death was not taken as seriously as it should have been by those who reviewed the case throughout city government and at every level," she said.
James announced this month that she had impaneled a grand jury to investigate Prude's death. She declined Sunday to discuss the investigation.