Rochester police pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl. Why didn’t a crisis team respond?

Rochester, New York, Mayor Lovely Warren said the city’s recently launched team that provides non-law enforcement response to some emergency calls did not respond to an incident in which police pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl because of the nature of the 911 call.

“Unfortunately, this was not an incident where PIC [Person In Crisis] Team would have been called,” Warren said Sunday. “This call did not come in a form that would have alerted the PIC Team. It came in a way that would have alerted the response that was given, which was our police department.”

Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson said Sunday that at 3:21 p.m. Friday, officers responded to a report of “family trouble.” He said “officers were made aware that a 9-year-old” girl “was suicidal.” She “indicated that she wanted to kill herself and she wanted to kill her mom,” Anderson said. He said she initially tried to run way.

Rochester police released body camera video Sunday that showed the young girl being handcuffed while she screamed repeatedly for her father and pepper-sprayed by police officers.

The incident came nearly a week after Warren announced the launch of the Person in Crisis Team, saying it would “provide a compassionate, non-law enforcement emergency response to people experiencing emotional or behavioral turmoil.” Warren said the pilot program would run through June, with the goal of continuing and continuously improving it.

The 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week team provides alternative responses to emergency calls that involve mental health, substance abuse and related issues. She said Sunday that the goal is “to be able to provide a joint response when necessary to improve how we protect the community.”

“This incident will certainly inform those efforts,” she said. “However, we should not unfairly disparage or demean the efforts of the team when they are truly not at fault.”

Rochester formed the Person in Crisis Team as part of a response to the death of Daniel Prude in police custody last year.

Rochester police were widely criticized in September when it was disclosed that Prude, a Black man, suffocated to death in March, after officers had placed him in a spit hood. The body camera video in Prude’s case was released six months after his death, only after his family sued the city. The video showed Prude, who appeared to be having a mental health crisis, handcuffed and naked with a spit hood over his head.

Police commanders had urged city officials to hold off on publicly releasing the video because they feared violent fallout if it came out during nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, according to emails, police reports and other documents the city released last year.

The handling of Prude’s death, which police had characterized as the result of a drug overdose, prompted Warren to fire the police chief in September.

Warren and top police brass pledged to be more transparent at a news conference Sunday.

Warren said Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan alerted her about the video of the 9-year-old girl’s being pepper-sprayed Friday. Warren said that she reviewed it early Saturday and that it was released to the public Sunday, about 48 hours after the incident. Warren said the video was from the cameras of two officers, including the officer who pepper-sprayed the girl. “As we finish redacting the others, we’ll make those available, as well,” Warren said.

Warren, who said the girl reminded her of her 10-year-old daughter, appeared emotional at times.

“I can tell you that this video, as a mother, is not anything that you want to see,” she said. “This is not something that any of us should want to justify. Can justify. And it’s something we have to change. It is not an option.”

The video was redacted to blur the girl’s face, and her name has not been publicly released. Police did not return requests for comment Monday. Warren said that she had spoken to the girl’s mother and that she was concerned about protecting the girl’s identity.

Herriott-Sullivan said Sunday: “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.”

At one point in the video, an officer says, “You’re acting like a child.” The girl responds: “I am a child.”

An officer tries to get her into the back of a police car so she can be taken to the hospital, said Anderson, the deputy chief.

“And as he did that, over time, the young child refused,” Anderson said. “She thrashed around. She actually, at one point, kicked one of the officers in the chest and knocked his body-worn camera around.”

But Anderson said it did not appear that the girl was resisting the officers. “She was trying not to be restrained to go to the hospital,” he said. As the officers made numerous attempts to get her in the car, one of them sprayed her with pepper spray, Anderson said. “And the effects of that did work,” he said, which is concerning to city and police officials.

“That’s what the concern that we have is — is the method that was used at that time,” he said.

The girl was taken to Rochester General Hospital and later released, Anderson said.

Anderson said he was making no excuses and echoed Warren and Herriott-Sullivan by pledging transparency and reforms.

“This is our effort to make sure that we’re transparent, that we’re responding to things relatively quickly,” Anderson said, adding that the police department is “looking at a culture change.”

“We need to make changes here,” he said.

Some of the changes could be announced as early as this week, Anderson and Warren said.

“Unfortunately, state law and union contract prevents me from taking more immediate and serious action,” Warren said in a statement announcing the officers’ suspensions Monday. “I will lead the charge that these laws be changed as part of our response to the Governor’s Executive Order 203.”

New York state Sen. Samra Brouk and Assembly member Demond Meeks, both of Rochester, introduced legislation Monday afternoon to prohibit police from using chemical agents on minors.

“The harrowing experience endured by a 9-year-old girl in our community — including being handcuffed and pepper-sprayed — should never happen to another child,” Brouk said in a statement. “This legislation will ensure that when a child is in crisis, they will never again be met with such violence in the form of pepper spray or other chemical irritants.”

Meeks said the incident Friday “shook me and our community to the core.”

“The same officers who are charged to serve and protect us instead brutally attacked a child of our community,” Meeks said. “It hurt my heart to see a child treated in this manner. She was treated as less-than, and that is totally unacceptable.”