Police Investigation Underway After 9-Year-Old Girl Pepper Sprayed During Arrest in Rochester, New York

The Rochester Police Department (RPD) is investigating the actions of several officers after a 9-year-old girl was restrained and pepper-sprayed during an arrest on Jan. 29.

Around 150 people peacefully took to the city’s streets on Monday night to protest the incident, which has garnered national attention after bodycam footage of the arrest was released over the weekend. A bill to ban the use of pepper-spray on minors has also been introduced in the New York State Senate; New York Attorney General Letitia James has said her office is “looking into” the incident.

The officers involved—none of who have been publicly identified—have been either suspended or placed on administrative leave while the department investigates.

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At least nine officers, as well as a police supervisor, were called to respond to what the RPD has described as a report of “family trouble,” In the bodycam video, an officer approaches the girl, who appears distressed, in the street. As he speaks to her, a woman who is believed to be the girl’s mother walks up to them. The mother and the girl begin to argue as the officer tries to bring the girl to a police car.

As two officers then try and put the girl—who is now in handcuffs—in the car, she repeatedly screams, “I want my Dad.” As they try and push her into the car, one of the officers says “You’re acting like a child.”

“I am a child,” the girl responds.

The officers try to get the child to sit back in the car. “This is your last chance,” a female officer is heard saying, “otherwise pepper-spray is going in your eyeballs.” The officer then sprays the girl while she screams.

“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,” Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said during a Jan. 31 press conference. “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.”

During the conference, police also claimed that the girl was behaving “suicidal,” and had made remarks about wanting to kill her mother. She was being detained to be taken to the hospital, from where she was later released.

“What happened Friday was simply horrible, and has rightly outraged all of our community,” Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said in a Feb. 1 statement. “Unfortunately, state law and union contract prevents me from taking more immediate and serious action.”

It is not clear which state laws or portion of the RPD’s union contract Warren was referring to; the Rochester Police Union did not immediately respond to TIME’s request for comment. But Rochester Police Union President Mike Mazzeo defended the officers’ actions during a Jan. 31 press conference, however, and alleged the girl’s mother had incited her behavior.

“We’re dealing with a very difficult situation, Mazzeo said, “and the very limited resources that are out there.” In response to calls for the officers to be held accountable, Mazzeo said there are “no policies they can show [were] violated.”

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“The Rochester Police Department has no business serving as the first responder in a mental health crisis that calls for mental health expertise,” New York City American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) executive director Donna Lieberman said in a statement. “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.”

Just a week before this incident, Mayor Warren announced that a Person in Crisis (PIC) team was being rolled out in the city, with the goal of providing non-law enforcement emergency response to residents dealing with emotional, behavioral, or mental health issues. A focus on such initiatives is one of the calls to action most consistent across police reform advocates.

“By mobilizing highly trained professionals, including crisis counselors and social workers, we can ensure that those in crisis receive treatment rather than punishment,” a Jan. 21 statement from Warren read. “This is a major change, not only in the way we handle non-violent law enforcement situations, but also in the way that we serve and protect some of our most vulnerable residents.”

But no counselors or social workers were called to this particular incident because, Warren said on Feb. 1, the call “did not come in a form that would have alerted [them].” She did not offer further details.

During the unrest that followed the police killing of George Floyd last May, Rochester was one of the many cities where issues of police misconduct and local mistrust in the police department came to a head. The death of Daniel Prude, which occurred after he was physically subdued by RPD officers in March 2020, sparked protests throughout the city.

The Person in Crisis team was formed in part as a response to the fallout from Prude’s killing.

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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