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Protests In Rochester As Lawmakers Move To Ban Use of Chemical Irritants On Minors

A frame of a video released by the Rochester Police Department on YouTube.
Rochester Police/YouTube/Screenshot by NPR
A frame of a video released by the Rochester Police Department on YouTube.

New York state lawmakers have introduced legislation that bans law enforcement officers from using chemical irritants on minors.

It was a quick response to Rochester Police pepper-spraying a handcuffed 9-year-old girl as officers were responding to a call of a family disturbance last week. Video of the girl's encounter with police was released by city officials, sparking protests in the city Monday evening.

City officials have "removed three officers from patrol duties" that were involved in the incident, according to the Rochester Police Department. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the encounter "disturbing and heartbreaking."

Braving freezing temperatures hovering in the 20s Monday afternoon, a crowd of roughly 100 demonstrators gathered outside a police precinct not far from where the incident took place.

"Keep your cuffs off our kids" and "Who keeps us safe? We keep us safe!" the crowd chanted.

A spokesperson with the Rochester Police told NPR on Tuesday no protest-related arrests were made.

The demonstrations, though smaller, were reminiscent of protests last summer when people took to the streets to demand justice for Daniel Prude, a Black man with a history of mental illness who died of asphyxiation after an encounter with Rochester Police.

Prude died in March, but circumstances surrounding his death were not made public until months later, leading to allegations of a cover-up. Several members of the Rochester Police Department were either terminated or resignedin connection with the Prude tragedy.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren late Monday ordered the suspension of officers involved in the pepper spray encounter. Interim Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan responded by suspending one officer while two others were placed on administrative leave, until an internal investigation has been completed.

"Unfortunately, state law and union contract prevents me from taking more immediate and serious action," Warren said in a separate statement Monday.

According to city officials, Rochester has a "Persons in Crisis" program, designed to have mental health professionals respond to mental health calls.
However, the mayor said the new program — which launched only a few weeks ago — wasn't triggered in this case because of the way the emergency call came into dispatch.

It came in as a family distress call, not as a mental health emergency and officers determined the girl was possibly a danger to herself and others only after arriving on the scene, according to city officials.

Bill introduced in New York State Senate

The action to remove the officers from patrol duties was announced as New York lawmakers were holding a virtual press conference unveiling new legislation. It would amend current state law to prohibit the use of chemicals, including "oleoresin capsicum, pepper spray and tear gas" against minors under any circumstance.

"We can at least make sure that no child will ever again be treated like this: threatened with violence and sprayed in the face with chemical irritants," State Sen. Samra Brouk, a Democrat who represents Rochester, said Monday.

Brouk said the bill is a single "step" for a community that has been through "so much trauma in the last six months," referring to the Prude incident.

"At a time when this young girl was in the middle of a crisis, away from her parents, instead of being comforted, spoken to as a child, she was treated violently and pepper-sprayed in the face," Brouk said during a video conference Monday.

Fellow Democrat Demond Meeks, a New York Assemblyman also representing Rochester, said during the press conference that the legislation "simply scratches the surface," adding that police are not given adequate de-escalation training.

"It hurt me to my heart to see that adults can treat a child in such a manner," Meeks said referring to the child, who has not been named by police. "She was treated as less-than, and that's totally unacceptable."

Cuomo agreed, tweeting that the incident is further evidence that in many areas in New York and across the United States, the relationship between police and the communities they serve "is clearly not working."

"As a human, this incident is disturbing and as a father it's heartbreaking—this isn't how the police should treat anyone, let alone a 9-year-old girl," the Democratic governor said in a statement.

"Across New York and around the country, the relationship between police and the communities they serve is clearly not working, which is why we launched a statewide effort to bring everyone to the table and make real, lasting reform."

Cuomo added that the city of Rochester "needs to reckon with a real police accountability problem."

Police responded to a call about "family trouble"

"I'm not making any excuses for what transpired," Rochester Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson said at a Sunday press conference, held the same day police released two officer-worn body camera videos from the incident.

"From what was observed, it didn't appear as if she was resisting the officer," Anderson said. "She was trying not to be restrained to go to the hospital."

Officials said the girl wanted to kill herself and her mother, and officers on the scene attempted to restrain the child. Anderson said the child "thrashed around" at one point causing an officer's body camera to fall to the ground.

The officer-worn camera footage, which features disturbing language and images, shows officers trying to restrain the girl as she falls in the snow. And as officers put handcuffs on her she screams repeatedly: "I want my dad!"

As police attempt to get the girl inside of a patrol car, she begs officers to get the snow off of her and tells them her arm is hurting.

At one point, an officer tells her: "You're acting like a child."

"I am a child!" she screams back.

The girl, who by this point is sitting in the back of the patrol car with her legs outside on the ground, refuses officers' commands to sit back and move fully inside the vehicle.

As this is playing out, an officer, seeming exasperated by the girl's refusal to obey commands, tells colleagues to "just spray her at this point."

A few seconds later, the girl screams as she is hit with pepper spray and then begs officers to wipe her eyes. It isn't clear which officer sprayed the eye irritant.

The police video ends with one officer exclaiming, "Unbelievable."

NPR's Liz Baker in Rochester contributed reporting.

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Brakkton Booker is a National Desk reporter based in Washington, DC.