Some experts on police training defended Officer Vaughn.
“What you’re trying to do is just get this person under control,” said Joseph L. Giacalone, a retired New York City police sergeant and an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “This person is saying he has Covid and he’s spitting. The officer is trying to keep his mouth away from everyone else.”
The pressure on the head did not appear to Mr. Giacalone to hamper Mr. Prude’s breathing, he said. “Although it looks terrible, it’s not going to affect your breathing,” he said. “It might not be comfortable.”
A former New York City detective saw a different reason for using a straight-leg position as the snow fell that morning: “That’s a move to keep from getting wet.” But the former detective, who spoke on the condition that his name be withheld because he said it would be improper to speak about another officer’s practices, said the move did not appear dangerous.
“It would not impede your breathing in any way,” he said.
“That seems highly problematic,” Seth Stoughton, a former police officer who studies policing and is a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, wrote in an email last week. “That position puts a significant amount of an officer’s body weight onto the subject’s head.
“There are ways to limit someone’s movement by holding their head, but they are generally appropriate only before the subject is secured in handcuffs,” he continued. “Because of the potential for injury, you use the head only when other options are not available.”
The Rochester Police Department has already cleared its officers in an internal investigation, finding that they acted in a manner “consistent with their training.” The police union has stood by the officers and also said they handled a mental-health call as trained. The union’s president, Michael D. Mazzeo, did not return calls for comment.
Professor Stinson flatly condemned the move, which he called “horrific.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” he said, likening the maneuver to “extrajudicial punishment and pain to teach someone a lesson.”
Dmitriy Khavin contributed reporting and Drew Jordan contributed production.