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Rochester Police Chief Resigns Amid Protests Over Black Man's Death

NOEL KING, HOST:

Last night in Rochester, N.Y., people celebrated and protested. They were reacting to the announcement that the city's police chief, La'Ron Singletary, is stepping down.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) It is our duty to win.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) It is our duty to win.

KING: Demonstrators painted Black lives matter on the street where Daniel Prude, a Black man, was pinned down by police and struggled to breathe. He died in police custody a week later. NPR's Brian Mann is following this one. Hey, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Morning.

KING: How big a deal is it that the police chief is stepping down?

MANN: Yeah, this is really big. You know, La'Ron Singletary had insisted repeatedly he would stay the course, refusing to go. He's local, a Black man who grew up in Rochester. But after this horrific video was released of Daniel Prude on the ground surrounded by officers with this hood over his head released last week, demonstrators insisted Singletary be held accountable for Daniel Prude's death. His departure was one of their key demands. Singletary did finally bow to that pressure. Ashley Gantt, one of the protest organizers, spoke last night calling this a victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ASHLEY GANTT: I want you to understand that these things don't happen because people are being good people or because they think it's the right thing to do. These things are happening because of you, because of people power, because we're out here every night putting our foot on their necks.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Yes.

MANN: Singletary isn't alone, Noel, heading out the door. The entire command structure of the Rochester Police Department either retired or accepted demotions yesterday. So the leadership of this force is now going to have to be rebuilt entirely.

KING: So has anyone explained how Rochester plans to do that in the middle of protests?

MANN: Well, this is going to be really complicated, and there are questions about how this police force will function and be managed during this transition. When these protests began, Rochester police aggressively used pepper spray, pepper balls and riot control vehicles against crowds. That angered a lot of people in Rochester. Police have now scaled that back. Church leaders have stepped in to help calm things down. And so there's a little window of time here, and Rochester City Council is going to be working quickly with the mayor to hire a new chief. City Council President Loretta Scott told reporters last night this is actually going to be the start of sweeping reforms.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LORETTA SCOTT: We're going to be looking for something different than we normally look for in a police chief. The systems need to change, and we won't lose focus of that.

MANN: One thing interesting here is that Rochester officials have already promised some concrete changes, including a shift of police department funding toward mental health and crisis intervention programs. That money will be taken away from the police department.

KING: I know there's been another development that you've been looking at. Daniel Prude's family is now suing the Rochester police. They filed a civil lawsuit. What's the claim that they're making?

MANN: This lawsuit alleges police used inappropriate force. The family also alleges that authorities, including La'Ron Singletary, covered it up, claiming publicly that Prude died of a drug overdose. Of course, a coroner's report instead described his death by asphyxiation as a homicide. Seven officers have already been suspended. And New York's attorney general is investigating. I should say La'Ron Singletary has denied any wrongdoing, and the officers union say police in this case followed their training protocols.

KING: There were celebrations last night, which you might expect given that protesters wanted the police to pay for this in some way. But there were also protests. So what are the protesters asking for now?

MANN: Well, they still have one key demand. They want Mayor Lovely Warren to resign. Like Chief Singletary, she's black. She was born and raised in Rochester. And Mayor Warren said again yesterday that she will not resign. She thinks she's the right person to carry out reforms in Rochester. But, Noel, pressure on her to go is intense.

KING: NPR's Brian Mann. Brian, thanks for your reporting.

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

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