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Rochester police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl, body-cam footage shows

Rochester, N.Y., police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl as they forced her into a patrol car while responding to a "family call" on Jan. 29. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Handcuffed and sobbing, the 9-year-old girl screams “I want my dad!” repeatedly as Rochester, N.Y., police officers try to force her into a patrol car. When the girl keeps refusing to swing her legs inside, one officer pulls out his pepper spray.

“Just spray her at this point,” the unidentified male officer tells a female colleague in a video of the Friday incident.

Moments later, the male officer sprays the girl himself as she shrieks in pain.

The graphic body-camera footage, which Rochester police released Sunday, left city leaders demanding answers for how a family disturbance call quickly escalated into a use of force against a young girl in obvious distress.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that for a 9-year-old to have to be pepper-sprayed is okay,” said Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan at a news conference on Sunday.

Rochester suspends police officers who pepper sprayed a 9-year-old girl

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren (D) added that as a mother of a 10-year-old daughter, the video “is not anything you want to see.”

The footage has drawn new scrutiny onto a Rochester police force already in turmoil over its treatment of Daniel Prude, a mentally ill Black man who died in March after police put a hood over the 41-year-old’s head. Video from that incident sparked national protests and led to the firing of the police chief and a new emphasis on sending mental health experts rather than police to deal with similar crises.

But the video released Sunday shows not enough has changed, activists said.

“What we saw in that video is police escalating the situation rather than de-escalating,” said Ashley Gantt, a co-founder of Free the People Roc, a community activist group in Rochester.

At least 7 police officers suspended in Rochester, N.Y., after release of video showing hood placed on Black man who later died

The incident began around 3:20 p.m. Friday, when police responded to a “family trouble” call, Rochester Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson said at Sunday’s news conference. Officers were told the 9-year-old girl, who hasn’t been identified, was suicidal.

“She indicated she wanted to kill herself and she wanted to kill her mom,” Anderson said.

When officers tried to “secure her,” Anderson said, the distressed girl ran away. The first video released by police shows an officer running after the girl along a snowy street. Once he catches up to her, he asks, “What is going on? How can I help?”

The girl’s mother then arrives and argues with her daughter, causing her to grow more upset. With two officers restraining each of the girl’s hands, video shows, she slides to the street, thrashing and kicking at police as she pleads to see her dad. Officers then handcuff her and try to force her into the back of a police cruiser. According to Anderson, they were trying to transport her to a hospital.

But the girl continues to scream and resists going inside the car, the second video shows. At one point, she pleads with the officers to “stop” and says they were hurting her. She also says that she “demands” to see her father.

“I don’t care what you demand,” one officer says in the video.

When another officer tries to push her into the back seat complains, “You’re acting like a child,” she responds, “I am a child.”

Minutes later, video shows an officer pepper-spraying the girl, leaving her crying in the back seat as officers finally close the door. “Unbelievable,” says the officer who pepper-sprayed her.

The girl was taken to Rochester General Hospital and released later that day. Police would not comment on whether any of the officers involved have been suspended or fired.

For local activists, the video is further proof that police treat people in the midst of mental health crises as criminals.

Sara Taylor, a social worker and administrator in Rochester, said her 12-year-old daughter has been arrested 10 times while suffering mental health crises. When Taylor’s daughter had an episode in November and called police, Taylor said they ignored her pleas for mental health care and handcuffed her.

“I’m screaming, ‘Please you gotta take it easy she’s a little girl,’ ” Taylor said. “They take her right out of my house like a criminal after I told them she has a psychiatric condition.”

On Sunday, Rochester leaders acknowledged a need for change in how police address mental health crises. In the wake of Prude’s death, the city created a Person in Crisis Team, which is meant to send mental health professionals rather than police to similar cases. Warren said the team was not dispatched because there were several events happening simultaneously that “required a police response.”

“It is clear from the video we need to do more in support of our children and families,” Warren said.

But Taylor, who started an organization that helps low-income parents cope with the challenges and stigma attached to having a child with mental health issues, said that need has long been evident.

“Our community has a heightened distrust right now because of Daniel Prude and now we have those impacting our babies. Are you kidding? It’s not okay,” Taylor said. “It’s shameful that it had to come to this.”