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Police pepper sprayed a child; groups say city needs better crisis response


The Rev. Lewis Stewart has called on the Rochester Police Department to ban the use of handcuffs and chemical sprays on minors following an incident last week in which police pepper sprayed a 9-year-old girl.

Stewart, president of United Christian Leadership Ministry of Western New York, also called on the department to investigate the incident and suspend the involved officers without pay, and for the department and the city to release all body-worn camera footage from the scene in its entirety. So far, the city has released footage from two officers’ cameras.

“What she was in need of was not the police, who made the situation worse, but mental health and social work intervention and care,” Stewart said during a news conference Monday.
The Rev. Lewis Stewart - FILE PHOTO
  • The Rev. Lewis Stewart
The incident, which occurred Friday, has prompted condemnation from the police chief, elected officials, and civil rights organizations alike, and intensified scrutiny on a police force that has been under a public microscope since news of the death of Daniel Prude at the hands of officers surfaced last September.

RELATED: City releases RPD bodycam footage of 9-year-old getting pepper sprayed

On Friday, police were dispatched to a house on Avenue B for a call about family trouble involving a possible stolen car. As officers investigated, one of them was approached by the mother of the 9-year-old who said her child had threatened to kill her, as well as threatened to kill herself, before running from the residence, Deputy Chief Andre Anderson explained during a news conference Sunday.

Officers took the child into custody, but the girl became agitated when she saw her mother, according to police and the video footage. Body worn video camera released by the police Sunday showed officers trying to put the girl, who police said was placed in handcuffs for her own safety, in the back of a patrol car. When she wouldn’t follow multiple commands to place her feet in the car, an officer used pepper spray on the girl.

The girl was treated at the hospital and released back to her family.

Officers should not have engaged the child as though she were a criminal, Stewart said. The incident, he added, provided yet another illustration of the need for officers to receive comprehensive de-escalation training and anti-racism education and training.

Stewart noted that the city’s new Person in Crisis Team, which was established to handle or assist with behavioral health calls, did not respond to this incident. The county’s Forensic Intervention Team also did not respond. Stewart urged city officials to speed up full implementation of the Person in Crisis Team, allow its staff to co-respond alongside police, and to “straighten out the lines of duties” for the police department and the crisis team.

“Comprehensive mental health intervention must be made available for crisis situations now,” Stewart said.

On Monday, the Rochester chapter of the NAACP also condemned the police officers’ actions toward the girl.

After all the incidents, investigations and reforms in years past, the result is a 9-year-old child being pepper sprayed,” President John Singleton III said in a written statement. “We need serious police reform now or these types of police incidents will continue to occur. There is no incentive for these incidents or unacceptable conducts to stop.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a separate statement that there was “no conceivable justification for the Rochester police to subject a 9-year-old to pepper spray.” She called on the city and the Police Accountability Board to open investigations into the incident, to review the police department’s policies on force and dealing with minors, and to provide the public with the misconduct history of the officers present.

“The Rochester Police Department has no business serving as the first responder in a mental health crisis that calls for mental health expertise,” read Liberman’s statement. “It’s time for a full transformation of community safety, beginning with extracting the RPD from responding to mental health crises and putting trained mental health professionals in charge.”

Jeremy Moule is CITY's news editor. He can be reached at [email protected].