A federal civil rights lawsuit was filed Monday against city and police officials in Rochester, New York, alleging decades of “inhumane” and racist police violence against demonstrators and residents. The lawsuit comes more than a year after Daniel Prude, which led to national condemnation of police use of force in the city.
“Simply put, a stunning historical record spanning more than four decades demonstrates that the Rochester Police Department’s use-of-force practices continue to be inhumane, racist, and antithetical to the functioning of a civilized society,” the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, filed by a group of lawyers, activists and people who attended protests in the city, alleges that police in Rochester routinely deploy excessive force against minorities, especially during protests, and that department and city officials have let such conduct go largely unpunished. The nearly 100-page document details more than 50 instances of alleged police abuse against people of color, for which the vast majority of officers were never formally disciplined.
As an example of the pattern of alleged conduct, the lawsuit focuses heavily on the use of force against demonstrators, medics, 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 he suffered a mental health episode and his family called police for help. At approximately 3:15 a.m. on March 23, Rochester police said they found Prude lying naked in the middle of the street.
While Prude complied with their orders to lay in his stomach and allowed himself to be handcuffed, he then sat up and started yelling at officers, according to body camera footage of the interaction. Police then put a spit hood over his head and pressed his face into the ground for more than three minutes. Prude eventually became unresponsive, and later died at a hospital.
The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, attributing it to “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint,” as well as “excited delirium” and PCP intoxication. A grand jurythe officers involved in Prude’s death in February.
The circumstances surrounding Prude’s death did not become public until September 2020, when Prude’s family released body camera footage of the incident at a press conference on September 2. The news sparked immediate outrage and the first protest occurred later that night.
During that protest and the demonstrations in the weeks that followed, the lawsuit alleges that Rochester police used “extreme and unnecessary force” including tear gas, pepper spray, blunt-impact projectiles, pepper balls and other “less-than-lethal” weapons. Over the first three nights of protests, authorities deployed 77 tear gas canisters and 6,100 pepper bullets, the lawsuit says.
“To be blunt, what I’ve witnessed has been nothing short of abject terror, carnage and unwarranted brutalization,” Rochester photojournalist Reynaldo DeGuzman, who attended the protests, said at a press conference announcing the lawsuit, according to CBS affiliate WROC.
The lawsuit details dozens of instances of alleged police violence at the protests, including a September 3 incident in which an officer allegedly shot a man in the eye with a pepper ball at “close range,” leaving him permanently blind. Officers are accused of then “intentionally” firing at the medics who attempted to provide aid — despite the medics allegedly wearing bright red jackets identifying who they were.
On September 4, Rochester resembled “a war zone,” with officers “unleashing flash grenades, tear gas, and thousands of pepper balls on the crowd,” the lawsuit said.
That night, police allegedly trapped a group of protesters on a bridge — a tactic commonly known as “kettling” — before attacking them with a number of weapons. “Videos from that night show heavily armored phalanxes of police using pepper balls, 40mm kinetic bullets, tear gas, and batons to assault diverse groups of protesters outfitted only with umbrellas, cardboard boxes, and plastic children’s sleds against the RPD’s military grade arsenal,” the lawsuit says.
“In New York City, for example, which saw thousands of demonstrators take to the streets, NYPD officers fired not one pepper ball,” the lawsuit added. “By contrast, one RPD officer the night of September 4, 2020, fired 148 pepper balls in the span of just twenty minutes.”
The lawsuit also accuses city officials of running a “sham internal disciplinary system” and refusing to hold officers who used excessive force either during the protests or in their daily work accountable.
Out of 923 civilian allegations of excessive force between 2001 and 2016, the police chief only sustained 1.7%, the lawsuit says. The strictest penalty administered in those 16 sustained cases “were 6 suspensions, most ranging from 1 to 20 days.”
“By failing to meaningfully train, supervise, and discipline officers who use excessive force and instead suppressing evidence of officer misconduct and attacking critics of the department, the City has fostered a culture of violence and impunity in its ranks,” the lawsuit says.
In a statement to CBS News, the city said Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren “welcomes” a Department of Justice investigation into the police department, and cited recent reforms the city has implemented, including requiring new officers to live in the city and allowing the mayor to fire officers for cause.
The lawsuit names Rochester city and police officials, as well as hundreds of police officers, as defendants, and seeks monetary damages and the appointment of an independent monitor for the police department, among other requests.
“Absent external enforcement, the system will not change itself: to date, the Department has not fired or disciplined any of the officers known to have engaged in the use of excessive force against Daniel Prude or any of the officers who engaged in blatant displays of force during the September 2020 protests, including those captured on video,” the lawsuit says, adding, “Plaintiffs bring this suit to end the RPD’s decades-long use of violent, unconstitutional force—before more lives, more Black and brown lives, are lost.”
Neither the Rochester Police Department nor the union representing the officers immediately responded to CBS News’ request for comment.