Despite calls for reform and better accountability, police violence continues nationwide. One police department in New York specifically has consistently been questioned for its officer’s use of excessive force. In the most recent incident caught on camera, Rochester police officials pepper-sprayed a woman while she held the hand of her 3-year-old, The New York Times reported.
While the incident occurred on Feb. 22, the video detailing it was released Friday. It follows weeks after another incident during which members of the same police department pepper-sprayed and handcuffed a 9-year-old girl. In both incidents the victims were Black.
According to the body cam footage, an officer confronted the woman, who was carrying her child, after a report of a shoplifter near a Rite Aid. “Did you steal from that store?” an officer says to the woman. “Oh come on, they said you stole.” What’d you take? Tell me the truth!” The woman repeatedly said she did not steal anything to which the officer replied: “I don’t have time for BS, you better be quick with me.”
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The woman denied stealing anything and even opened up her purse to show the officer. She then ran away with her child across the street, according to body-cam footage. Officers then tackled the woman to the ground and sprayed her when she got up to grab her child. Her daughter can be heard screaming throughout the entire incident during which an officer and her mother each pulled for her. While the child was not sprayed officials viewing the footage noted she could have been exposed and questioned how police dealt with the child.
“As we all know from [earlier] protests, pepper spray goes everywhere immediately, so this child was exposed to the gas,” City Council member Mary Lupien said after watching the footage. Lupien described a second officer breaking the mother’s grip as a “karate chop” noting that this occurred while an officer on the ground “puts his knee on her back with his whole body weight to get her handcuffed,” “all while the child was watching.”
Lupien also commented on a second video in which an officer can be seen restraining the child while the mother is in a police patrol vehicle.
“It’s really similar to the incident with the 9-year-old,” Lupien said. “‘What’s your name? Tell me your name, dear. Your mom’s OK. What’s your name?’ officers repeatedly asked her. He must’ve said it 50 times. Really, that’s how you calm down a child? At one point, he says, ‘Can you pull your car over here, because it looks bad that I’m restraining a 3-year-old?'”
Following the incident, the woman was charged with trespassing and given a court appearance ticket, “as the store confirmed she knocked a number of items off of the shelf and refused repeated requests to leave,” interim Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan wrote in a March 4 email to City Council President Loretta Scott, according toThe Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.
Details of the case were made by the city’s Police Accountability Board (PAB) on Friday at a news conference. PAB officials were made aware of the situation after a bystander video spread on social media.
“These disturbing incidents prove that the Rochester Police Department needs to fundamentally change its organizational culture,” the PAB said in a statement. “These incidents also affirm our community’s call to fundamentally reimagine public safety.”
PAB officials also noted that the incident had “troubling parallels” with the department’s confrontation with a 9-year-old girl days earlier. “Both incidents involved Black mothers. Both involved Black children. Both involved Black people obviously in crisis. Both involved officers using pepper spray on or around a Black child,” the statement noted. Additionally, “both involved apparent intimidation of bystanders filming the incident,” the statement added. “Without the courage of those bystanders, who were willing to stand up and hold the police accountable, both incidents may never have been brought to light.”
“The community has played such a huge role in getting this information out, in both instances,” PAB member Danielle Tucker said during the press conference. “At times, I don’t think the community understands the importance that they play in getting this information out. Learning about this through Facebook, seeing this on Facebook from community activists, it’s kind of disturbing, because you want to see it from them, but you also think the information should be brought to the board’s attention another way.”
The city’s mayor also chimed in noting the importance of accessible body footage. “When incidents like this occur, I am relieved that I ensured body-worn cameras are worn by our police so that we can see what occurs on our streets and hold officers accountable,” Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said in a statement. Warren added that changes to police plans and policy will be made in addition to “mandatory training for officers regarding racism and implicit bias.”
During the press conference Friday, Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan confirmed that the officer involved in the arrest has been placed on administrative leave pending investigation into the incident. Herriott-Sullivan called the incident “unsettling” and noted that just because the department has the ability to use pepper spray, doesn’t mean that they should. “Just because we can do certain things, should we? Can we get to the same place by utilizing a different strategy?”
The use of pepper spray is not the only scrutiny the department has faced. Last year, officers put a “spit hood” over the head of Black Rochester resident Daniel Prude after he was found wandering the streets naked. His death was ruled a homicide caused by “complications of asphyxia in the setting of physical restraint.” No officers were indicted in the case, Daily Kos reported. Condemning these actions is not enough. Rochester police officials must be held accountable for this consistent use of violence and new policies must be introduced.
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