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New York Investigates Daniel Prude's Stay At Strong Memorial Hospital

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Daniel Prude died in Rochester, N.Y., a week after police officers put a hood over his head and held him down, handcuffed, on a cold March night. Reporter Brett Dahlberg has been digging into this case and has learned that right before Prude's fatal encounter with police, he had been in the ER receiving psychiatric care, but then to the confusion of his family, the hospital released him after just a few hours.

BRETT DAHLBERG, BYLINE: It was 3:00 in the morning on March 23. Rochester police officer Andrew Specksgoor had just pulled up to Joe and Valerie Prude's house.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDREW SPECKSGOOR: Hey. What's up?

JOE PRUDE: How's it going, man?

SPECKSGOOR: Good. How are you?

J PRUDE: Oh, man...

DAHLBERG: Joe's brother Daniel had sprinted out of the house earlier in the night, and Joe was worried about him. In this audio recording from Specksgoor's body camera, Joe tells him Daniel's fast. He used to run track.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J PRUDE: I turned my head one minute, he was gone.

VALERIE PRUDE: It's sad. He tore off his...

J PRUDE: Track star status.

V PRUDE: Tore off his suit from the hospital and...

J PRUDE: Hauled ass like Carl Lewis.

DAHLBERG: Joe says Daniel was barefoot, wearing nothing but long johns and a tank top when he ran outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J PRUDE: No shoes. No coat.

DAHLBERG: But what's really got him concerned is Daniel's mental state. Less than 12 hours earlier, Joe had called the police for help getting Daniel to a hospital. Joe said Daniel had problems with PCP addiction. He and his wife Valerie said Daniel had been acting dangerously and expressing suicidal thoughts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J PRUDE: He jumped 21 stairs down to my basement, headfirst.

V PRUDE: Yeah. Earlier he went and jumped in front of the train.

J PRUDE: Yeah, train missed him by this much.

DAHLBERG: But only a few hours after he got to Strong Memorial Hospital, Daniel was released. His brother told police Daniel was calm when he got back to the house. But then a few hours later, he was missing again, so Joe called police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

J PRUDE: When the doctor called me and told me that they had released him...

SPECKSGOOR: Yeah.

J PRUDE: ...I'm saying, how are you going to sit here and release him when he was - while he was hurting himself?

SPECKSGOOR: Yeah.

J PRUDE: Come on. You weren't sworn to do that.

DAHLBERG: This time, though Joe doesn't know it yet, Daniel's encounter with the police will be fatal. The county medical examiner will find that he suffocated while under police restraint. Now state and federal authorities are investigating Daniel's treatment at Strong Memorial Hospital. The hospital has come under scrutiny by regulators before for its discharge procedures and treatment of three other psychiatric patients in the past four years, according to hospital inspection reports.

A spokesperson for the University of Rochester Medical Center, which runs the hospital, says Daniel Prude's care was medically appropriate and compassionate. The Medical Center says it's addressed the problems of those previous cases and they had no bearing whatsoever on the evaluation or treatment of Daniel Prude. But the medical center asked an outside expert to look into whether Prude's race played a role in his treatment in the ER. They chose Doctor Altha Stewart. She's the past president of the American Psychiatric Association and now a dean at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

ALTHA STEWART: In today's health care system, bias is built in structurally into the system.

DAHLBERG: Stewart says she doesn't have any direct knowledge of the case yet, but in general, for Black Americans like Daniel Prude, the risks of misdiagnosis or mistreatment in a psychiatric unit are high.

STEWART: Seen a tall, imposing Black man who is behaving aggressively puts in place a series of ideas and thoughts and assumptions.

DAHLBERG: She and other psychiatrists and advocates say those assumptions lead to actions, like failing to diagnose mental health disorders, not prescribing appropriate medications or releasing patients too early. Stewart says the largely white psychiatry profession has many unconscious biases about Black patients. They often don't think the treatments will work on Black patients or that they'll comply.

STEWART: It either won't make a difference, or it doesn't apply, or you're not going to do it anyway.

DAHLBERG: As a result, she says, too many Black patients don't get the care they need. She says police are often the ones called to handle mental health emergencies, and that means there's a high risk of the type of deadly force that police used on Daniel Prude.

For NPR News, I'm Brett Dahlberg.

GREENE: Brett's story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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