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Child Pepper-Sprayed By Rochester Police Was Denied Mental Health Help, Mother Says

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.

The mother of the 9-year-old girl who was handcuffed and pepper sprayed by police in Rochester, N.Y., last week said she was never informed by law enforcement that a chemical irritant was used on her daughter.

In addition, she allegedly told officers she feared her daughter may be experiencing a mental health crisis and requested trained personnel to assist. But that request was denied.

"As soon as my client saw the child running, she had an immediate concern about that, alerted the officer that, hey, this child may be having a mental health crisis and please get some mental health services involved," Lorenzo Napolitano, an attorney for Elba Pope, the girl's mother, told NPR.

Mother was told no mental health officials were coming

The officer told Pope nothing could be done, according to Napolitano.

"Her understanding is that the officer basically told her, 'I can't do that. I can't call anyone else,' " Napolitano told NPR in a wide-ranging interview Thursday.

Napolitano said both Pope and her daughter are Black, and adds the mother didn't become aware that the girl had been handcuffed and pepper sprayed until media reports began to surface days later.

He also noted that another relative picked the child up from the hospital after she was released and that the girl is back in school and receiving counseling.

The Rochester Police Department declined multiple requests from NPR for comment Thursday.

A spokesperson for the city of Rochester Justin Roj also told NPR that Mayor Lovely Warren was not available for comment.

The claims that Rochester police rebuffed the mother's requests for mental health specialists to assist with her daughter were first reported by the Washington Post.

"I was saying, 'We need mental health out there,' " Pope told the paper. "He ignored me," she said of the officer.

The mother also told the Post she feared her daughter, who has not been named, could suffer over the long term from the emotional trauma during the police encounter, which took place Jan. 29.

Rochester officials released a pair of officer-worn body camera videos two days later, which sparked outrage and subsequent days of protests in the city.

Diallo Payne marches to a small protest outside Rochester Police Locust Club, the police union that represents members of the Rochester Police Department.
The Washington Post / The Washington Post via Getty Im
The Washington Post via Getty Im
Diallo Payne marches to a small protest outside Rochester Police Locust Club, the police union that represents members of the Rochester Police Department.

The videos show the girl screaming repeatedly for her father as officers try to restrain her. She eventually falls to the snow-covered ground where officers place handcuffs on her.

At one point, video shows the girl sitting in the back of a squad car, with her feet on the ground outside the vehicle. Several officers give her repeated commands to move fully inside the vehicle.

While this is taking place, an officer seems to grow frustrated by the girl's refusal to obey commands and tells colleagues to "just spray her at this point."

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

Over the weekend Executive Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson said police were responding to a call about "family trouble" at a residence in northern Rochester just before 3:30 p.m.

He added that the girl said she wanted to kill herself and her mother, and that officers at the scene "made an effort to try to secure her."

Later police attempted to move the child to a police vehicle so that she could be transferred to a hospital, Anderson said, but the child "thrashed around." He added that, in his opinion, the child did so because she did not want to be go to the hospital, not because she was resisting the officers.

Mother is suing the city

Pope is suing the city over what the lawsuit calls the police department's "wanton, reckless and malicious" conduct.

She is seeking an unspecified amount in punitive damages from the city for things including "physical injury and substantial pain," along with future health, psychological and psychiatric treatment, according to a complaint against the city that was shared with NPR.

The complaint is dated Feb. 1, the same day city officials had "removed three officers from patrol duties" who were involved in the pepper spray encounter.

Interim Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan announced two officers were placed on administrative leave, while another officer was suspended, pending the results of an internal investigation.

The names of the officers have not been made public.

The incident ignited fresh scrutiny over how law enforcement polices communities of color and handles people in the midst of mental health crises.

Rochester police came under fire last year following the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man with a history of mental illness. He died of asphyxiation after an encounter with officers.

While Prude died in March, details surrounding his death were not made public until months later, leading to protests in the city. Several members of the Rochester Police Department command staff were terminated or resigned from the department.

Rochester Police also came under fire for their handling of a minor last summer, when they put handcuffs on a 10-year-old girl during a traffic stop.

Three adults riding in the vehicle were charged with minor crimes, but the child was not, ABC affiliate WHAM-TV reported at the time. The station adds police said the girl was placed in handcuffs after she refused officers' commands to stay away from a busy roadway and officers put restraints on her for safety reasons.

Napolitano, the family attorney, said there are parallels between his client's case and that of Prude, and that, for her, justice would include sweeping reforms in the Rochester Police Department.

"Not just some incremental changes, small changes, " Napolitano said, "but to change the way our police department responds to individuals in a mental health crisis."

He said it is a question in many people's minds about how this incident would have transpired "had this child been a different race," but adds the mother is encouraged by a bill introduced by New York state lawmakers this week that would ban the use of chemical irritants on minors.

"She would also like to see the officer that pepper sprayed this poor little girl fired," he added.

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