Responding to an urgent call from protesters to defund police departments and, in effect, reallocate a portion of police budgets to preventative and mental health services, Rochester, New York, is actually doing exactly that, the British online newspaper the Independent reported. And the move was in part prompted by a name less well-known than George Floyd’s. About two months before a Minneapolis cop kneeled on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes in a deadly detainment, Daniel Prude was killed in a similar fashion in Rochester.
Prude was naked, unarmed, and having a mental health crisis when Rochester police officers Mark Vaughn, Troy Taladay, and Francisco Santiago brutally apprehended him and placed him in a spit hood on March 23 in a detainment that ended with Prude’s death one week later. When Daniel Prude’s brother, Joe Prude, called the police for help and officers responded, they joked about Daniel Prude’s state, the racial justice organization Free the People Roc reported in a Facebook post.
“While cuffed, naked, and laying on the freezing cold ground, RPD officers mocked Daniel Prude and cracked jokes, and put a bag over his head,” the organization said. “RPD officers Mark Vaughn, Troy Talladay, and Francisco Santiago then proceeded to swarm him. While Talladay forced his knee into Daniel’s back and Santiago held down his legs, Vaughn pushed Daniel’s head into the ground using all of his body weight—essentially doing a triangle pushup on his head. Less than ten minutes after he was cuffed, Daniel Prude breathed his last conscious breath.”
Attorney General Letitia James announced earlier this year during a news conference that, although her office determined “there was sufficient evidence” to present Prude’s case to a grand jury, the current laws on deadly force failed Prude. A grand jury voted not to indict the officers accused of killing him.
The only semblance of justice in the case came in the form of a public safety overhaul, marked by the retirement or resignation of the police chief and the city’s entire command staff and a 4% decrease to the city’s $95 million policing budget last year, the Independent reported. That amounts to about $3.8 million, and the city again slashed police funding by about $4.5 million this year. A sliver of the money, $130,000, was taken from police overtime and reallocated to youth services, and a large portion went to funding a “person in crisis” team that dispatches staffers who work in mental and behavioral health with officers on police calls involving someone suffering a mental health crisis.
“I’m from this community, and people from this community have spoken after they saw how police treated Daniel Prude. That’s what birthed our program,” Dre’ Johnson, a social worker on the city’s new crisis team, told the Independent. “I don’t think it’s taking a shot at the police to say that people weren’t happy with the responses they were getting when it came to mental health, or substance abuse and homelessness. There was a void and we’re filling that void.”
Johnson is on a team of 30 employees with similar backgrounds, all more equipped than police to deal with those suffering mental health crises, the Independent reported. “These folks really are having one of the most difficult days of their life,” Johnson told the newspaper, “and it doesn’t need to be compounded by a fear of being hurt by someone who isn’t trained or has the background or skill set to work with that person.”
Renee Brean, a social worker who works with Johnson, told the Independent there is no routine call. “It might be someone who is suicidal or homicidal. It might be someone who has run out of meds,” Brean said. “We’ve responded to calls where there’s a domestic dispute between husband and wife, parents and children. Each crisis looks different.” Brean and those in similar roles act as mediators between police and those in crisis, many of whom have had negative interactions in the past shaping their fear of police. “If we’re paying tax dollars for someone to protect us, and we’re afraid to utilize that service. We’re afraid that the protection will cause harm, or make it worse, that’s an issue,” Brean said.
On a ride-along with Independent journalist Richard Hall, Brean described heading with Johnson to the scene of a woman who had appeared to be having a mental breakdown in the shower with her clothes on. “Johnson tries to arrange a ride home for a woman in distress, while Brean takes care of the children who were playing on the street,” Hall wrote. “They go between the police and the ambulance drivers before she is eventually taken to hospital. To the untrained eye, it looks less of a new way of policing and more of an addition to it.”
Johnson debriefed with Hall after the call and told him the officer “seemed to get agitated” with the woman “because she wasn’t listening.” “I’ve seen many situations go awry because people were talking back,” Johnson said. “The way that we are taught from school is to be as least invasive as possible. The police are trained totally differently. They are trained to issue commands and people have to comply. It turns into a power struggle sometimes.”