The response to Rochester police handcuffing and pepper-spraying a fourth-grade girl has been swift: New York state and local lawmakers are joining youth justice advocates to demand systemic changes in how police treat kids.
In the aftermath of the troubling Jan. 29 incident that was widely publicized after the release of body camera footage, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren (D) suspended one of the officers involved, placed two others on administrative leave and launched an internal investigation.
Advocates and lawmakers have gone further, introducing sweeping reforms. On Feb. 1, two Rochester-area Democratic state legislators introduced a bill that would ban police from using chemical agents, including pepper spray and tear gas, against anyone younger than age 18.
Although the Rochester girl — who is not being identified publicly to protect her identity as a minor — was roughed up and detained but ultimately not arrested, four New York City public defender groups are calling for an end to the potential arrest and prosecution of young children. The Legal Aid Society and three other organizations released a statement Thursday asking the governor and state Legislature to raise the minimum age a child can be prosecuted in juvenile court from its current 7 to age 12.
“The assault of a 9-year-old Black child in Rochester is the vile product of policy failure, police impunity and outright racism,” said Alice Fontier, managing director of Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, in the statement. New York, she added, “can start by immediately enacting the Raise the Lower Age legislation, ending its backwards practice of arresting and prosecuting young children, bringing it in line with the rest of the country and restoring a modicum of common sense.”
New York is one of just two states with laws allowing for prosecution of a 7-year-old. North Carolina sets a lower limit of age 6, and 29 other states set no minimum age. Almost 1,000 New Yorkers 12 or younger were arrested in 2018, the latest year of data.
Last week, the family of the Rochester girl at the heart of the recent incident igniting calls for reform took the first step in filing a lawsuit against the city, alleging in a claim notice the “infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, excessive force, false arrest and false imprisonment,” according to WHEC TV.
According to numerous sources, here is how the Jan. 29 scene unfolded:
Elba Pope, the girl’s mother, told NBC News she called the Rochester police after getting into an argument with her husband outside their house. The call came in as a report of “family trouble involving a stolen vehicle,” police spokesperson Jacqueline Shuman told The Imprint by email.
Pope said her 9-year-old daughter overheard the argument, got upset and started running down the street.
After police arrived, they were told the girl “wanted to kill herself, and she wanted to kill her mom,” Rochester Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson said at a Jan. 31 news conference. Body camera footage publicly released that same day by Mayor Warren’s office showed an officer following the child as she ran down the street on a frigid afternoon. Anderson said the officers were trying to get her to Rochester General Hospital for mental health services.
When the officer caught up to her, he tried to reassure the girl that she wasn’t in trouble, the video footage shows. He took her arm, but the girl yelled “get off of me!”
The scene quickly escalated. After a second cruiser pulled up, with the girl and her mother crying out in fear and anger, officers tried to put the girl in the back of a squad car. The videotape shows two police officers turning her over and handcuffing her.
“Get in the car now! You’ve had your chances!” an officer shouted, followed by more police commands: “You’re acting like a child!”
“I am a child!” the girl screamed back.
A female officer soon threatened the girl more harshly, the tape shows: “This is your last chance, otherwise pepper spray is going in your eyeballs,” she said.
A minute later, another officer told her to just relax and breathe.
“You said you were going to pepper spray me! Please don’t!” the girl begged.
A few seconds later he sprayed her in the face. The girl can be seen screaming in pain and begging officers to wipe her off.
For Liz Ryan, president and CEO of the Youth First initiative, a national campaign to end youth incarceration, it’s clear police escalated the situation. “She was just being a 9-year old. Kids do that, kids talk back, kids say stuff,” Ryan said. “This particular case got media coverage, but how many of these things happen that nobody’s covering?”
Indeed, Rochester police union President Michael Mazzeo noted in the Jan. 31 news conference that police had handcuffed the same girl last November while responding to another call at her house. Police also handcuffed another Rochester girl, age 12, during a mental health crisis in November, according to an interview a local TV station did with the girl’s mother.
Youth justice experts say such treatment is a clear sign that states need specific rules for how officers should interact with children.
New York, like other states, has no comprehensive standards for police-youth interactions, according to a 2017 report by the Massachusetts-based Strategies for Youth, a nonprofit that trains police on contacts with kids. Only two states, New Jersey and Virginia, have regulations governing some aspects of such calls, even though there are plenty of reasons for concern. A 2018 study based on interviews with 324 youth arrested in Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, found that more than half involved some level of force.
New York requires local police departments to have policies that are consistent with a model use-of-force policy that the state created last September. Yet that policy notes only that officers must consider the “age, size, relative strength, skill level, injury or exhaustion, and the number of officers or subjects.”
Interpreting that rule is up to individual departments. Police spokesperson Shuman stated that the Rochester department doesn’t have a specific policy for police officers interacting with minors, but is “reviewing our policies to see what areas could be improved.”
Advocates say that leaves the field wide open for officers to use their best judgment — even if they have little training on how to interact with kids.
“What we see too often in the United States is policies that don’t direct officers to use different use of force and restraint with children and teenagers than with adults,” said Strategies for Youth Executive Director Lisa Thurau.
Thurau’s organization created a set of standards for police departments that are informed by what makes children different than adults — such as their limited capacity to self-regulate in emotionally charged situations. Strategies for Youth calls on officers to use the least amount of force possible, de-escalate situations by using a calm and measured tone and avoid threats or intimidation, giving children ample time to comply.
One former police official underscored these points, noting that the Rochester officers responding to the domestic call late last month had alternatives — chief among them spending longer on the scene if necessary. The body-cam footage shows 12 minutes elapsed between when an officer began following the girl down the street and when they pepper-sprayed her.
“Let it play itself out, give her space, and eventually she’s going to wear herself down,” said Tracie Keesee, a 25-year veteran of the Denver police force who spent three years as deputy commissioner at New York City’s police department and co-founded the Center for Policing Equity. “So it takes time. Lots of calls take time. That’s what you’re there for. Time is on your side.”
At a virtual City Council meeting last week, Rochester officials called for better training in trauma for police officers and greater reliance on non-law enforcement teams to respond to mental health crises. But so far, there is nothing in place to stop another 9-year-old from being roughed up by local police.
The girl’s mother said in interviews that she asked officers on the scene to call mental health services when it became clear her daughter was heading toward a meltdown. “I trusted the Rochester Police Department to do what they needed to do to help my daughter,” she told NBC News, “not to abuse her or hurt her at all.”
In the absence of clear standards, the family’s lawsuit is one of the few ways to change how police behave toward kids, Thurau said. “What is obscene to me is that the only two systems of oversight right now, it seems, are the media and individual police misconduct attorneys.”
Note: This article was updated on Wednesday, Feb. 10.