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‘Just Spray Her at This Point’: Rochester Police Pepper-Spray 9-Year-Old Black Girl After She’s Handcuffed In Patrol Car, Screaming for Her Father

A little more than a week after the city of Rochester, New York, launched a program to de-escalate police interventions with residents suffering from mental health issues, it failed the first big test. A 9-year-old girl who police say family told them may harm herself or others was handcuffed, pepper-sprayed and manhandled by officers instead of receiving aid from mental health professionals.

Although the Person In Crisis Team hasn’t been in action for long, the guidelines were set up late last year. What perplexes many is why this new tool wasn’t utilized during an incident that seemed to be tailor-made for it. Mental health professionals and civil rights advocates throughout the city are outraged.

Melanie Funchess has been a mental health advocate for families and youth for over 25 years. She works extensively in the areas of family engagement/empowerment, community building, education and community health. Known as “Mama Mel,” she, like many in Rochester, was outraged that a child in mental health crisis was treated like a criminal.

“I saw the tape,” she said in discussing the case with Atlanta Black Star this week. “I saw several things that could’ve been done to de-escalate the situation without causing more trauma to the child.”

Funchess said that by the time the camera caught the officer’s interaction, the girl was already in a “fight, flight or freeze” mode.

“The brain is still developing at that stage, but the limbic system, the trigger for those impulses to fight, flee or go catatonic are part of us from birth,” she said. As an advocate for defunding the police, Funchess wants governments to realize that there are more “tools” that could be used to work better.

Likening the police to a hammer, she said there are other ways to achieve a desired result.

“If the only tool you bring out is a hammer, Black people will always be treated like they are the nail.”

Do Black Lives Matter to Rochester Police?

According to police statements, officers responded in a predominantly Black part of town to a call from the girl’s mother that her vehicle had been stolen. She named the child’s father as the culprit. Upon police arrival, the young Black girl took off running. Police said her mother told them that the girl was suicidal.

In total, nine officers and Rochester Police Department personnel responded to the home around 3:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29, in response to a report of “family trouble.” Bodycam footage released a little more than a day later shows a white male police officer chasing down the child admonishing that she’s “not in trouble.”

Those words would belie the consequences that later befell the young girl. After several minutes of confusion — the girl screaming for her father, telling the police officer to “get off her” when he tries to restrain her, the mother chastising the girl for her sass, passersby laughing and videotaping the incident with cellphones, and a whole cacophony of noise, chaos, sirens, yelling and physical force, she ends up in the back of a squad car.  

The city realized quickly that this wasn’t a good look.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called a Sunday morning news conference. She expressed concern that a child was harmed by police.

“I have a 10-year-old child, so she’s a child, she’s a baby. This video, as a mother, is not anything you want to see,” said Mayor Warren.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren holds a press conference Sunday, Jan. 31 to address an incident where police pepper-sprayed a hand-cuffed 9-year-old girl. The officers have been suspended pending an investigation. Photo: Screen shot from online press conference

Officers claimed the girl kicked them as they tried to put her in the back of a patrol car.

In a statement released the next day, police said the use of physical force taking the child down to the ground as well as the use of the irritant sprayed in her eyes was “required.” They added that “for the minor’s safety and at the request of the custodial parent on scene,” the child was handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. Police then waited for an American Medical Response ambulance to arrive.

The bodycam footage shows that a female police officer tried to use a soothing voice to calm down the child. However, after a few minutes, that officer told her “this is your last chance or pepper spray is going in your eyeballs.”

Almost immediately, another officer can be heard saying, “Just spray her at this point.” The female officer is seen shaking a can of pepper spray. Then a male officer does the same. He reaches into the car and declares “it’s done.”

The officers involved have been suspended pending an investigation, according to police officials.

Police, Mayor’s Office Won’t Say Outline Protocol for Use of Pepper Spray, Physical Force

“No child should ever experience assault or abuse at the hands of law enforcement. There is no conceivable justification for the Rochester police to subject a 9-year-old to pepper spray, period,” said officials with the New York Civil Liberties Union in a statement. “The Rochester Police Department has no business serving as the first responder in a mental health crisis that calls for mental health expertise. It’s time for a full transformation of community safety, beginning with extracting the RPD from responding to mental health crises and putting trained mental health professionals in charge.”

Police officials didn’t release their requirements or policies that stipulate when it is appropriate to react with physical force and/or pepper spray. When Rochester media asked the department to provide the policies that “required” the use of an irritant, Rochester Police Capt. Mark Mura said, “The incident is under review at this time. We will comment on this question after all [body camera] video and procedures have been reviewed.”

The child was taken to Rochester General Hospital under the state’s mental hygiene law, “where she received the services and care that she needed,” police said.

After being treated, she was released to her family.

Although the child’s physical injuries weren’t life-threatening, the incident reminds many advocates of Black Lives Matter and other civil rights organizations of a police incident less than a year ago where a 41-year-old Black man lost his life after a run-in with Rochester police.

Incident Sparks Visions of Another Episode of Police Excessive Force

Daniel Prude had been suffering from a mental health episode after ingesting PCP and was walking naked on a residential street in late March 2020. Rochester police officers detained him put a spit hood over his head to keep him from spitting on them. They held him face down on the pavement for 2 minutes and 15 seconds, and he stopped breathing. Prude received CPR on the scene and later died of complications from asphyxia after being taken off life support.

The autopsy report ruled Prude’s death a homicide. The report was released in September and sparked protests from those who said Prude’s death was mainly because he was Black.

The perception that any Black person is a threat gets to the root of why incidents involving Blacks and police often result in tragedy, said Funchess.

“The child was already in the car when she was pepper-sprayed,” she added. “When she asked for someone to wipe her eyes, she was ignored.”

Funchess went on to say that had the child been blond and blue-eyed the results would have been different.

“He didn’t see her as a child, or even as human,” said Funchess. “They didn’t even know her name. … That officer hog-tied that child.”

The NYCLU agreed that systemic racism played a part in the incident.

“We called on the mayor and her administration to take urgent, systemic action in the wake of Daniel Prude’s killing, and we will do so again: Rochester police must no longer respond to residents experiencing mental health crises, and the city must immediately create safe alternatives that provide care, not inflict violence and trauma upon those they were called to support,” added NYCLU officials.

Police Say Actions of Pepper-Spraying 9-year-old Girl are Justified

Rochester Police Union President Mike Mazzeo also held a press conference Sunday. He defended the officers’ actions, saying that they did what they could to subdue the child.

“I’m not saying there are not better ways to do things,” Mazzeo said. He admitted that the police have limited resources and are often placed in no-win circumstances.

“We don’t have a simple (situation), where we can put out our hands and have somebody be instantly handcuffed and comply. It’s not a simple situation.”

When asked why RPD referred to the actions of the officers as required, Mazzeo said the officers did not break any protocols, because there are no clear policies. 

He added that this wasn’t the first time this girl was handcuffed. He referenced an incident in November but declined to elaborate further.

Other police officials have similar comments that the outcome was unfortunate, but none offered solutions.

“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. 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,” said Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan.

New York state legislators took up the matter and sponsored a bill banning the use of pepper spray at a virtual meeting Wednesday.

When Should Person In Crisis Team Be Dispatch? Guidelines Vague

Although police officials expressed concern when they viewed the footage, they couldn’t explain why the Person In Crisis Team wasn’t dispatched.

Certain calls made to 911 related to people experiencing mental health and substance crises are supposed to be referred to the team that is available 24 hours a day. The team was devised as an alternative response to emergencies where police might have previously been the first on scene. 

The mayor’s office said the PIC Team wasn’t summoned for Friday’s call because it involved “a number events happening at the same time that required a police response.”

That response wasn’t good enough for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He tweeted shortly after the incident occurred, calling for a statewide review.

“Rochester needs to reckon with a real police accountability problem, and this alarming incident demands a full investigation that sends a message this behavior won’t be tolerated,” he wrote.

Person In Crisis Team  

The Person In Crisis Team will respond to mental health, domestic violence and other related crises. A coordinated response to crisis calls is essential to making sure that these calls for help are handled appropriately and that those in crises are given the type of care they need. By mobilizing highly trained emergency response social workers, and through a partnership with the Goodwill of the Finger Lakes 211 Lifeline Call-center, we can employ more effective ways of connecting people to the services they need. Through this strategic partnership, we can ensure a 24/7 call response to all City of Rochester zip codes, with the ultimate goal of diverting crisis calls to other selective dispatch first responders.

The goals of the PIC Team are to:

  • Increase connection to community crisis services that meet the need, by de-escalating crisis calls;
  • Divert crisis call coming in to 911 to the most appropriate response option, activating law only when needed; and
  • Strengthen supports post crisis to address full range of needs to stabilize and prevent future crises. 

Source: City of Rochester

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