The city of Rochester, New York, has suspended police officers seen in body-camera videos spraying a chemical “irritant” in the face of a distraught and handcuffed nine-year-old girl, officials announced on Monday.
The city did not specify how many officers were suspended. The suspensions will last at least until an internal police investigation is completed.
The decision was announced as community outrage swelled over the incident.
Video released by police showed the girl being restrained after officers were summoned to a family disturbance on Friday. Crying and shouting “I want my dad”, the girl was led to a police car and was sitting in the back seat when a male officer told his colleague: “Just spray her at this point.”
Police proceed to pepper-spray the nine-year-old, who screams and shouts: “Wipe my eyes, please.” An officer then closes the door. The video shows at least seven officers were present.
Rochester police were already under scrutiny over the death of a mentally ill black man in March 2020. Daniel Prude, 41, died of asphyxiation after officers put a hood over his head and pressed his head to the pavement for two minutes.
Rochester police released body camera footage six months after Prude’s death, after his family sued the city. The incident prompted national protest. The police chief was fired.
Regarding the Friday incident, Andre Anderson, Rochester’s deputy police chief, said officers were told the girl had “indicated that she wanted to kill herself and she wanted to kill her mom”.
Anderson told reporters officers chased the girl as she attempted to flee. Police decided to take the nine-year-old to hospital, but Anderson said the girl refused to get into a police car.
“It didn’t appear as if she was resisting the officers, she was trying not to be restrained to go to the hospital,” Anderson said. “As the officers made numerous attempts to try to get her in the car, an officer sprayed the young child with OC spray to get her in the car.”
The video shows officers wrestling with the nine-year-old in the snow. At one point an officer says: “You’re acting like a child.”
The girl responds: “I am a child.”
Rochester police chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said: “I’m not going to stand here and tell you that for a nine-year-old to have to be pepper-sprayed is OK. We’re going to do the work we have to do to ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen.”
The president of Rochester’s police union defended the officers involved.
“[The officer] made a decision there that he thought was the best action to take. It resulted in no injury to her,” Mike Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, told reporters. “Had they had to go and push further, and use more force, there’s a good chance she could have been hurt worse.”
Mazzeo added: “It’s very very difficult to get somebody into the back of a police car like that.”
Rochester mayor Lovely Warren said that speaking as a mother of a 10-year-old daughter, the video “is not anything you want to see”.
In a statement, Warren added: “I am deeply troubled by the macing and handcuffing of a child who is in distress and clearly emotional.”
The police body camera video shows numerous cars and officers on the snowy scene. After being restrained on the ground, the girl, wearing flowered leggings and a black sweatshirt, asks: “Can you please get the snow off of me? It’s cold.”
“You had your chance,” one officer tells her. Another shouts: “Get in the car now.”
Warren met Herriott-Sullivan, before announcing the disciplinary action.
“What happened Friday was simply horrible, and has rightly outraged all of our community,” Warren said in a statement. “Unfortunately, state law and union contract prevents me from taking more immediate and serious action.”
New York attorney general Letitia James said on Monday her office was “looking into” what happened. She called the incident “deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable.”
James last year empaneled a grand jury to investigate several Rochester police officers following the death of Prude.
The New York Civil Liberties Union said Rochester police should no longer be involved in mental health crises.
“There is no conceivable justification for the Rochester police to subject a nine-year-old to pepper spray, period,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said.