On Sunday, the Rochester, N.Y. Police Department released footage from officer body cameras of a Friday afternoon arrest during which they handcuffed and pepper sprayed a 9-year-old girl. The arrest was widely scrutinized on social media after the video, which the police department edited, was made publicly available.
The girl, who was taken to the hospital after police pepper sprayed her in the face (she has since been released), was reportedly experiencing a mental health crisis at the time of the arrest. Police initially responded to a 911 call regarding "family trouble;" when they arrived, the child's mother was with her, though the child repeatedly called for her father.
Body camera footage shows officers pushing the girl into the snow while trying to handcuff her. At one point, an officer said, "You’re acting like a child," to which she responded, "I am a child." When the girl resisted getting into the police car, one officer said, "Just spray her at this point." They did so, while she screamed in distress.
The Rochester Department of Recreation and Human Services recently established a Person in Crisis (PIC) team to respond to calls regarding individuals in need of supportive services — but that team was not dispatched for this particular call, according to the Democrat & Chronicle. In a press conference, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said the PIC team wasn't dispatched because the call in question involved "a number [of] events happening at the same time that required a police response." Warren also said she's "very concerned about how this young girl was handled by our police department. It is clear from the video we need to do more in support of our children and families."
Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan will conduct an investigation into the arrest, at the mayor's direction. "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," Herriott-Sullivan said during the 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."
But in a separate press conference, police union president Mike Mazzeo defended the officers involved, while acknowledging there may be "better ways to do things."
"We don't have the answers, but we also shouldn't be to blame," Mazzeo said. Mazzeo appeared to praise the officers's restraint, saying that the 9-year-old might have been further injured had the officers used more force.
Ashley Gantt, co-founder of Rochester community activist group Free the People Roc, believes the officers involved are indeed to blame for their actions. "What we saw in that video is police escalating the situation rather than de-escalating," Gantt told The Washington Post.
New York Attorney General Letitia James commented on the incident via Twitter on Monday. "What happened in Rochester on Friday is deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable," she wrote. "Such use of force and pepper spray should never be deployed against a child, period." James added that her office is "looking into what transpired" and called for "drastic reform" of the Rochester Police Department.