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Rochester, N.Y., Police Chief Resigns Amid Protests Over Daniel Prude's Death

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The top leadership of the Rochester, N.Y., police department resigned today. That includes chief La'Ron Singletary. The move followed days of sometimes violent clashes between protesters and police. And that unrest began last week, when a video surfaced of officers detaining a Black man named Daniel Prude. Back in March, Prude was held down naked on the street with a hood over his head. He later died in custody, and his death was ruled a homicide. NPR's Brian Mann has been following this story and joins us now.

Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, so what have you learned today about these resignations?

MANN: Yeah, this has developed really fast. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren appeared this afternoon on a video conference with the city's council. She was expected to give sort of a briefing on the protests and the police response. Instead, she dropped a bombshell.

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LOVELY WARREN: I do want to inform you the entire Rochester Police Department command staff has announced their retirement. That includes the police chief. That includes Commander Deputy Chief Morabito.

MANN: So the city council responded with a kind of shocked silence. Warren was asked the timeline for Singletary's departure, and it looks like he'll stay on through the end of the month.

CHANG: But I thought La'Ron Singletary said just two days ago that he had no plans to step aside. So what changed here?

MANN: Yeah, this is really interesting. La'Ron Singletary is a Black man who grew up in Rochester. He's kind of a native son. He tried to make the case in recent days that he is best suited to reform Rochester's police department. Here's what he said on Sunday.

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LA'RON SINGLETARY: And I think people do want change. People do want reforms. And I think, you know, even prior to - whether Mr. Prude's death or Mr. Floyd's death, there have been calls for change. And I think that's what we have been continuously doing. That's what we will always do.

MANN: Yeah, and that message just wasn't working in Rochester. Pressure on Singletary to step aside just kept growing, especially as these protests turned violent. In a written statement today, Singletary complained of what he described as outside entities trying to destroy his character. It's unclear exactly what that means. He also defended his handling of the Prude case and the protests but said after 20 years on the force, he is retiring.

CHANG: Why has so much of the anger focused on Singletary specifically? Like, what do critics believe he did wrong?

MANN: Daniel Prude was arrested under pretty horrible circumstances. This video shows him lying naked on the street. He's surrounded by officers. It's cold. There's sleet in the air. He's not covered with a blanket. He has what's called a spit hood over his head. After he died in custody, an autopsy ruled it a homicide. But police described the incident publicly as a drug overdose. So protest leaders like Ashley Gantt, who I spoke to a couple of days ago - they say they believe there was a cover-up here. And it's not just Chief Singletary they want out. They also want the mayor, Lovely Warren, to resign as well.

ASHLEY GANTT: So we know that she is from this community. We know that La'Ron Singletary is also from this community. We also know that both of these people are Black people. That's why we elected them, right? We elected them in the hopes that when it comes time to stand strong, to stand up for what is right, which is always necessary to do, even when it's hard, even when it's difficult, even when it's against the status quo, that they would do that and represent the people.

MANN: So Gantt's group, which is called Free The People Rochester, say they plan to keep up the pressure until the mayor steps down as well. But the mayor says she's going to stay.

CHANG: Now, protests in Rochester have been less tense the last couple of nights. There's been more of an effort to de-escalate clashes between police and demonstrators. Do we have any sense at this point for where all of this goes next?

MANN: Yeah. We know the protests will continue tonight. And these activists say they feel like they're gaining ground in Rochester. After they began their marches, New York's Attorney General Letitia James announced she's impaneling a grand jury as part of the investigation into Daniel Prude's death. City officials in Rochester have committed now to hiring more mental health workers and shifting funding for mental health care away from the police department. And now that the search for this new leadership for the police department is under way, one thing we'll be watching is how this loss of leadership affects police response to what we're seeing on the street. Again tonight, hundreds of officers and possibly thousands of protesters will be back out there.

CHANG: That's NPR's Brian Mann.

Thank you, Brian.

MANN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.