Video shows Rochester, New York, officer pepper-spraying mom with toddler

ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Rochester police are again facing questions over its officers’ use of pepper spray — this time after spraying the irritant into the face of a woman as she held the hand of her 3-year-old child.

Video released Friday details the Feb. 22 encountes, coming less than one moth after the department garnered international attention for pepper-spraying a handcuffed 9-year-old girl. 

Both incidents involve police interactions with Black women and their children.

The latest occurred on Feb. 22, at a Rite Aid store, and involved an officer responding for the report of a theft. 

Police responded to a reported theft from Rite Aid and encounter the woman and child on a sidewalk.

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The woman denies stealing anything, opening and partially emptying her purse to show the officer. But then runs away, carrying the child, when the officer’s attention is diverted, police body-worn camera footage shows. She is caught across the street, separated from the child, and taken the ground.

The child is screaming and crying and, as the woman gets up and grabs for her daughter, she is sprayed and taken down a second time. A brief, near tug-of-war then occurs over the child before the woman releases (or is forced to release) her grip.

A woman holding her 3-year-old daughter was confronted by two Rochester police officers outside MoJoe's Take Out, 515 Portland Ave., on Feb. 22. (Photo: Will Cleveland/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle)

“Stop. Oh my God, what is wrong with her?” the officer holding the child is heard saying of the mother.

The child was not pepper sprayed directly, but officials viewing the footage worry she could have been exposed and have questioned how police dealt with the child.

“These disturbing incidents prove that the Rochester Police Department needs to fundamentally change its organizational culture,” read a statement from the city’s Police Accountability Board. “These incidents also affirm our community’s call to fundamentally reimagine public safety.” 

The woman ultimately was charged with trespassing, given an 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.

Details of the case were made public by the PAB at a Friday morning press conference. As that was concluding, police released the video footage, and a statement that one officer had been placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation.

“During the investigation and interaction between the officer and the female, a struggle ensued and the female was pepper sprayed and arrested,” the RPD statement read. “While this was taking place, her young child was on scene and with her. The child was not pepper sprayed or injured during the arrest.

An RPD spokeswoman had said Thursday that the video would be released early next week, as officials were in the process of redacting identifying information.

In a statement, Mayor Lovely Warren — who a spokesman said first viewed the footage back on Feb. 23 — called the footage “disturbing.” The administration expects to deliver its updated police reform plan to City Council next week, she said, adding that Herriott-Sullivan, “is working to make sweeping, but necessary, policy and procedure changes along with mandatory training for officers regarding racism and implicit bias.”

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Warren reiterated her push for changes in state law that would allow the city to immediately terminate officers for cause, adding: “Change will not come until we have the ability to fully hold our officers accountable when they violate the public’s trust.”

The Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA TODAY Network, has confirmed that City Council members have had access to the unredacted footage since Tuesday. City Council President Loretta Scott received the video on Feb. 23 as well. Herriott-Sullivan and two members of her command staff are copied in on the email.

The D&C contacted seven city councilors requesting comment. Three said they had not watched the footage yet and another declined comment.

The footage runs 1 hour, 48 minutes minutes long. It was provided to Scott as 20 different video files from the perspective of six officers, according to an email chain.

City Council member Malik Evans said after watching some of the video that it was clear the department needs a better way to deal with the children of people being detained. He had not yet seen footage of the woman being pepper sprayed, however. Multiple videos were shared without context, he said, making it difficult to quickly grasp how events unfolded.

City Council member Mary Lupien said this latest incident is more proof that the system of policing is irreparably broken and needs to be reconstructed.  

What the latest video shows

The encounter begins just after 4:30 p.m., and the entirety of the interaction lasts little more than a half hour until the child is ultimately handed over to her grandmother. For a time the officers place the child in the back of the squad car with her mother, and an officer brings her books then begins to read to her from “The Princess and The Frog.”

More than once, an officer asks about calling the Family and Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT) to the scene, but another officer responds: “They haven’t even logged in yet.” The footage viewed by the PAB doesn’t show any crisis team members arriving before the woman is driven away.

“As we all know from (earlier) protests, pepper spray goes everywhere immediately, so this child was exposed to the gas,” Lupien said after reviewing the footage. The mother maintained a grip on her daughter’s hand, while the other officer was holding her other arm. The officer was “pulling” at the child, so “she was suspended between two people,” Lupien added.

The second officer “karate chops” the mom’s wrist to break her hold, Lupien said. She ends up back on the ground and an officer “puts his knee on her back with his whole body weight to get her handcuffed,” Lupien said, “all while the child was watching.”

Another video depicts an officer restraining the child while the mother is already in a police patrol vehicle.

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“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?”

Officers are shown confronting a bystander filming the incident after the mother was placed in the back of a police car, the PAB said. All the while, the child is “crying inconsolably and screaming for her mother,” the PAB said.

Role of bystanders

The PAB said it was initially made aware of the incident after video shot by a bystander surfaced on social media.

“The community has played such a huge role in getting this information out, in both instances,” board member Danielle Tucker said. “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 board, which maintains subpoena power according to the city charter, said it has made repeated inquiries to the city and police to release requested information regarding the Harris Street incident. It has made similar requests for this latest incident.

“These same policies, practices, and procedures are at issue in the videos we saw last night,” the PAB said. For the past month the board has asked for written manuals and training documents related to the use of pepper spray, the handling of children, and people in crisis, it said in a statement. It has also requested the full disciplinary and training histories of the officers involved.

“The City has never provided us with this information or a host of other materials we requested,” the PAB said. “If the City had done otherwise, our investigation and any resulting proposals for change may have prevented this incident from happening.” 

The board said it is unclear what the policy is, because it hasn’t been able to review those policies. 

“We believe that had we had an opportunity to speak with police officers, talk about some of the culture, cultural changes that need to be made, and the compassion and concern that they need when they are addressing people in the community, it would’ve helped,” board member Arlene Brown said. “It possibly made them aware of some of the things they’re doing when they’re interacting people that may have become the norm. They may see how the community sees how they are addressing things.”

Follow Will Cleveland on Twitter @willcleveland13. 

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