The incident happened on the afternoon of Jan. 29 in Rochester, where police were responding to a call of “family trouble,” Rochester Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson said at a news conference on Sunday.
Officers were told that the girl was “suicidal” and wanted to kill her mother, Anderson said.
Police interrupted an argument between mother and daughter, then cuffed the screaming girl and partially wrangled her into a patrol car, bodycam videos show. Officers wanted to take her to the hospital, but she refused to get in the car so they pepper-sprayed her.
“This video, as a mother, is not anything that you want to see,” Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said at the news conference alongside police on Sunday. “It is clear from the video that we need to do more in supporting our children and families.”
The videos released on Sunday show two officers pinning the girl down in the snow, then handcuffing her hands behind her back while she shrieks, “I want my dad!”
The girl continues to scream while the male officers drag her toward the police car and partially shove her in.
“You’re acting like a child,” one officer tells the girl.
“I am a child!” the nine-year-old replies.
A female officer eventually shows up and manages to briefly calm the girl down so that she’s no longer shrieking. The female officer promises to bring the girl’s dad if she simply puts her legs inside the police car, but she refuses.
The officer then tells her to sit back, “otherwise pepper spray’s going in your eyeballs.”
The officers spend about a minute trying to convince her to get in the car so they can take her to the hospital. The girl continues to resist, saying: “You said you were gonna pepper-spray me! No, please don’t!”
A male officer wearing one of the body cameras then appears to give up. “Just spray her,” he tells the woman. “Just spray her at this point.”
The female officer can be heard shaking an aerosol can, and the male officer can also be seen holding one. He leans in, says, “I’ve got her” and sprays the girl. She can be heard screaming and crying afterward.
She was taken to hospital immediately afterward, Anderson said.
“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 (pepper) spray to get her in the car.”
He added that he wasn’t making “any excuses” for the incident, and highlighted it as a sign that the department needs a “culture change.”
Police released the footage within 48 hours of the incident, amid a recent push to be more transparent with the public.
“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that for a nine-year-old to have to be pepper-sprayed is OK,” Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said. “It’s not.
“I don’t see that as who we are as a department, and we’re going to do the work we have to do to ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen.”
Mike Mazzeo, president of the city’s police union, defended the use of pepper spray on Sunday night.
“I’m not saying there are not better ways to do things,” Mazzeo said, according to the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. “But let’s be realistic about what we’re facing … it’s not TV, it’s not Hollywood … it’s not a simple situation.”
Rochester police overhauled their leadership and policies last fall in response to the death of Daniel Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who died during a police encounter in March 2020. Video released six months after the incident showed police putting a spit hood over Prude’s head while responding to a crisis call. Prude suffocated under the hood and later died in hospital.
The mayor fired the police chief in September over Prude’s death, amid accusations that it had been covered up. The video was only released after a lawsuit by Prude’s family.
Mayor Warren pointed out that the city launched a Person in Crisis response team earlier in January, but that team was not deployed for the call involving the girl last Friday.
“There were a number of events happening at once at this location, all of which required a police response,” she said.
Nine officers and supervisors were on the scene on Friday, authorities said. The girl was released after she was treated at the hospital.
Warren said she’s spoken with the girl’s mother, and the Person in Crisis team will also be reaching out to the family.
“This is not something that any of us should want to justify, can justify,” she said. “And it is something we have to change.”
—With files from The Associated Press