It was clear that police thought she was a problem.
The 9-year-old girl was not complying with police orders. Already handcuffed, she would not swing her legs into the back of the police car. She complained about a bad arm. She kept calling for her dad. She was unable to stop sobbing. Rochester, N.Y., police officers, who had responded to a domestic disturbance at the girl’s home, were getting frustrated.
One of the police officers scolded the little girl for “acting like a child.”
“I am a child,” the girl yelled back. Moments later, he pepper-sprayed her.
Video of the child’s detainment, which occurred Friday afternoon, provoked protests in the streets of Rochester on Monday and drew outrage from many who watched the body-camera footage. On Twitter, “She’s 9” began trending, with the vast majority of tweets expressing horror — but not necessarily surprise — that a 9-year-old girl would be treated that way by law enforcement. By Monday night, Rochester city officials announced that the police officers seen in the footage have been suspended until an internal police investigation is completed.
The footage reignited criticism of police resorting to force against children instead of other interventions, especially when the children are Black. Mental health experts also said it showcased the way officials can exacerbate a potential mental health or domestic crisis. Police were initially called because of “family” trouble, with the girl indicating that “she wanted to kill herself and she wanted to kill her mom,” Rochester Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson told reporters on Sunday.
In an early video of the incident, the girl’s mother is shown berating the girl, increasingly becoming verbally abusive, as officers stand by. Not only did the police officers’ decisions have the potential to amplify the trauma of a family already experiencing a crisis, experts said, but the violent detainment could profoundly impact the girl’s expectations of authority and safety.
“[It] was just shocking on a fundamental level,” said Jor-El Caraballo, a licensed therapist and founder of Viva Wellness in New York City. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a video of an adult being pepper-sprayed while they’re in the back of a police car and already restrained.”
The Rochester police department has made headlines before. Last year, several officers were investigated following the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died after officers, who were responding to a call for help, put a hood over the naked man’s head and pressed his face into the pavement. The incident prompted Rochester Mayor Lovely A. Warren to fire police chief La’Ron Singletary. Officials also pledged to send mental health professionals to cases where a person may be experiencing a crisis (that team was not dispatched in this case, Warren said on Sunday).
In the past, Caraballo said, he himself has had to call emergency health services in crisis situations. In his experience, police officers have tended toward “overresponse,” he said: a proliferation of law enforcement, many of whom may be on high alert for perceived threats.
“[This] is very common for mental health emergencies, and it absolutely increases people’s panic and stress in those situations, particularly if those people are also people of color who already have a foundational distrust of police,” Caraballo said.
But while that may partially explain the girl’s panic, Caraballo said the Rochester police’s overreaction is rooted in a specific kind of racial bias in which Black girls are viewed as being older, stronger or more aggressive than they actually are. This phenomenon, known as “adultification,” was the subject of a widely covered 2017 study from the Georgetown University Center on Poverty and Inequality. The study found that adults view Black girls, especially between the ages of 5 and 15, as needing less nurturing, protection and support than their White peers. These perceptions contribute to a pattern of Black girls being punished more severely, and more often, for perceived misbehavior by a range of authority figures, from kindergarten teachers to police officers.
For Rebecca Epstein, the executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality and one of the study’s co-authors, the video of Rochester police treating a 9-year-old girl as a threat and a nuisance, rather than a child in crisis, fell into a familiar pattern.
“There is that fundamental dehumanization of Black girls who should be treated with healing intervention and instead are harshly punished,” she said.
She cited reports that police may have been told the girl was suicidal and threatening to hurt herself and her parents, and she referenced another recent incident in Florida, in which a student resource officer was filmed slamming a Black teenage girl to the ground after she got into a fight with another student. The girl appeared to be unconscious as the officer slipped handcuffs on her wrists.
The arrest of the 9-year-old child in Rochester is part of that spectrum of dehumanization and criminalization, Epstein said.
There were different choices police could have made that wouldn’t have amplified the girl’s trauma, said Ednesha Saulsbury, a licensed clinical social worker. From the start of the interaction, a police officer chased down the child and, early in his conversation, told her that more police were coming — all of which could have triggered fear in her.
“How many videos has she seen on TV, on social media, of Black people being abused or killed?” Saulsbury said. “I felt like there was no cultural sensitivity in that moment.”
She also pointed to the girl’s early interaction with her mother, which wasn’t included in most of the video clips circulating of the girl’s detainment. With officers standing by, the mother berates the girl. They argue about a violent fight between the mom and the girl’s dad, and the child accuses the mom of trying to stab her father. At that point, Saulsbury said, the focus should have been on assessing the safety of everyone in the home, especially the child.
Her cries to see her father could have been rooted in her concern for his safety, Saulsbury noted, and an effort should have been made to locate the father. Instead, her reactions were criminalized, with police escalating their threats.
It took about 17 minutes from the time police first encountered the girl to when she is pepper-sprayed in the back of the squad car. During that time, there were multiple levels of trauma and violence the girl experienced, said Carolyn West, a clinical psychologist and psychology professor at the University of Washington.
“This child has maybe no safety within her family, and that’s not changed as a result of this,” West said. She added that it is easy for police and other outside observers to label the child’s behavior as a problem, or to focus solely on the police brutality she experienced. But the deeper problem of family violence gets lost in those discussions.
For that reason, West sees “multiple system failures” at play: She wondered where the support services were for families who may be struggling. West also pointed to targeted programs for families experiencing mental health crises or domestic abuse, like Ujima, which focuses on the unique experiences of Black women experiencing gender violence. All of these services could have better aided the girl and her family, she said.
Saulsbury said social workers should have been called to the scene once police understood there could have been violence in the girl’s home. But Caraballo cautioned that people working in the child welfare system can exhibit the same biases police do. One federal study found Black children were placed in foster care at twice the rate of White children, in part because judges and caseworkers were more likely to find Black women incapable of taking care of their children.
Experts agreed that it was ultimately unfair and inappropriate to place the responsibility of fixing social problems on police, who often don’t have the tools, training nor experience to handle these layered, complex interactions.
In response to the widespread criticism of the police, Mike Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, the local police union, defended the officers’ decision-making in a news conference on Sunday.
“It’s very, very difficult to get somebody into the back of a police car like that. And she’s 9 years old. Imagine what happens when we have a full grown individual,” he said. As for the officer who pepper-sprayed the girl, “he made a decision there that he thought was the best action to take.”
“It resulted in no injury to her,” Mazzeo continued.
Caraballo, the therapist, called Mazzeo’s claim “absurd.”
“Who knows how this interaction compounds her own beliefs about police, about authority, about people who are supposed to help, and even about her own mental health issues and her likelihood to access support in the future, when she is in crisis,” he said. “As a mental health professional, the implications of that are very scary for me.”
There are society-wide implications to this erosion of trust, experts said. Anyone who identifies with the child, whether it’s because they’re a person of color or experiencing mental health issues and domestic violence in their own lives, could see the incident as validation to not to seek any help. Ultimately, that puts the people who are most vulnerable at greater risk for harm.
“This is a type of structural institutional violence that we live with on a regular basis, and this is then being broadcast around the world,” said West, who called it “incredibly triggering” for Black people in particular.
“It’s not just her experiences; it’s hundreds of years of this experience.”