Police in Rochester, N.Y., are under fire after an incident in which a 9-year-old girl was pepper sprayed by officers. Body camera footage of the disturbing incident, which took place Friday (Jan. 30), has angered many in the local community leading to calls for accountability.
According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, police officers were called to a home responding to “family trouble.” The woman who reportedly called them told police that she feared her child would harm herself or others. The unidentified girl ran away from home, but police say when they tried to take her into custody, she pulled away and kicked at officers. Officials say that at the request of the custodial parent at the scene, the officers then handcuffed the child and put her in a squad car while awaiting an ambulance to come.
As she resisted, an officer used “an irritant on the minor,” police said.
The body camera footage shows the officer following the girl down a snowy street and she argues with another adult, apparently her mother, saying a domestic violence incident took place between her and an adult male, who the girl says is her father. The woman tries to force the girl to go back home, but she refuses.
Finally another officer arrives on the scene and the police try to put her in the squad car. The girl screams for her father. During the struggle, the bodycam is knocked off one of the officers, but is still working and recording from the ground.
One of the officers can be heard telling the girl, “you’re acting like a child,” to which she responds: “I am a child.”
When they get her partially into the car, she continues to scream for her father. One of the officers threatens to use pepper spray on her. After another minute one says to the other “just spray her at this point,” then she is sprayed in her eyes and screams from the pain.
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At a Saturday press conference, Rochester police officials did not release any policies on whether the procedure was required to subdue the child. “The incident is under review at this time. We will comment on this question after all [body camera] video and procedures have been reviewed,” said police spokesman Capt. Mark Mura. It is unclear if the domestic violence incident was ever confirmed.
Investigator Mike Mazzeo, president of of the Rochester Police Locust Club, the union which represents uniformed police spoke in defense of the officers’ response.
“We don't have a simple (situation), where we can put on out our hands and have somebody be instantly handcuffed and comply. It's not a simple situation," he said.
Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriot-Sullivan, while not criticizing the officers involved, also did not defend them.
“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that for a 9-year-old to have to be pepper-sprayed is OK. It’s not,” she said. “I don’t see that as who we are as a department, and we’re going to do the work we have to do to ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen.”
The girl was taken to Rochester General Hospital’s Mental Hygiene law, treated, then released to her family, the Democrat and Chronicle reported.
Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said she has seen the footage and spoken to Herriot-Suilivan about the incident. She said she was "deeply troubled by the macing and handcuffing of a child who is in distress and clearly emotional." She said the city is developing new protocols for such emotional distress calls.
She said the existing Person In Crisis team and the Monroe County (N.Y.) Forensic Intervention Team were not called during this incident because of the nature of the original 911 call. “Unfortunately, there were a number of events happening at the same time that required a police response," she said.
"I have directed RPD to complete a thorough investigation of what occurred, and welcome the PAB's (Police Accountability Board) review of this incident as well," Warren said.
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Rochester’s Police Accountability Board said that it would be sure the entire community saw the incident. “Our community needs to see exactly what happened on Avenue B,” Conor Dwyer Reynolds, Police Accountability Board executive director told the Democrat and Chronicle, saying the organization has “a legal duty to bring transparency to all of the RPD’s policies and practices, including those at issue here."
But there was frustration in the community among those who felt the situation with such a young child could have been handled much differently.
New York State Assemblyman Demond Meeks demanded that the officers involved be fired immediately. “There is no excuse to mace a 9-year-old girl, a child who was helplessly handcuffed and in your control,” he tweeted.
Others vowed that those responsible will be held accountable.
Photo: Screengrab/Rochester Police Department