When the officer finally forced her to turn around, he pulled out his pepper spray and aimed it at her eyes as her daughter stood by sobbing, a separate video of the incident from a surveillance camera shows.
Footage of the Feb. 22 incident, which was released Friday, has now led to one officer being placed on administrative duty as the department conducts an internal investigation, police said, as critics and city officials demand changes to police tactics.
The Rochester Police Department did not respond to a request for comment late Sunday. The woman and officers involved have not been publicly identified.
The Rochester police force has been in turmoil for months, since footage was released in September showing officers putting a hood over the head of Daniel T. Prude, a 41-year-old Black man in mental distress, who later died. Last month, body-camera footage showed another officer pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl in the midst of a mental crisis.
Those cases have sparked national protests, as well as local efforts to reassess the department’s treatment of Black residents and its response to mental health crises — a movement that sparked new demonstrations last month when a grand jury declined to indict the officers involved in the Prude case.
“There are troubling parallels between this new incident and the one on Harris Street that occurred just a few weeks earlier,” Rochester Police Accountability Board Chair Shani Wilson said, according to the Rochester City Newspaper, referring to the case involving the 9-year-old girl. “Both incidents involved Black mothers. Both involved Black children. Both involved Black people obviously in crisis. Both involved officers using pepper spray on or around a Black child.”
The Feb. 22 incident began around 4:30 p.m., when officers responded to allegations that a woman with a child had shoplifted from a Rite Aid, argued with employees and then refused to leave, police said in a statement provided to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
The woman first told an officer she didn’t steal anything, according to the body-camera footage, and then opened her bag to let him inspect it. When the officer turned away, the woman ran off with her daughter. Officers caught up to them outside a nearby restaurant. As one officer wrestled the woman to the ground, another dragged away the toddler, who was screaming.
In a video, an officer said, “Can you pull your car over here, because it looks bad that I’m restraining a 3-year-old?”
After police pepper-sprayed and handcuffed the woman, they put her in the cruiser and eventually drove away after the toddler’s grandmother arrived to take her.
In separate footage released from the cruiser, an officer told the woman that he had to “karate-chop” her arm to force her to let go of her daughter. He then told her that by running from the scene, she appeared guilty and said he had no choice but to restrain her. “You ran away from us and caused a big scene,” he said.
Another video showed officers talking to a bystander who was recording the police on his phone. Police asked him if he witnessed the incident and if he could recount what he saw. The man, who is Black and has not been identified, called the officer’s actions “inhumane.”
“I know they got a job to do. I refute none of that and whatever she did, she has to deal with that. But come on man, she had a baby in her hand,” he said in the video. “What I’m trying to say is when is this s--- going to stop?”
“The child was not pepper sprayed or injured during the arrest,” police said in a statement, noting that the woman was later charged with trespassing.
The accountability board, though, said the 3-year-old still could have been exposed to the chemicals due to her proximity to her mother.
City Council President Loretta Scott on Friday called the incident “unacceptable” and said it probably “severely traumatized” the girl, according to a statement to the Democrat and Chronicle.
“After viewing this video, I am even more convinced that the current culture, policies and procedures of RPD must be changed immediately,” Scott said.
Mayor Lovely Warren (D) called the incident “disturbing.”
“When incidents like this occur, I am relieved that I ensured body-worn cameras are worn by our police, so that we can see what occurs on our streets and hold officers accountable,” Warren said in a statement.
But accountability isn’t necessarily enough, Rickey Harvey, a member of the police accountability board, said in the news conference.
“We would like to see more empathy involved,” Harvey said. “There was a 3-year-old child present. The officers are there to protect the businesses, yes, but the citizens as well.”