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RPD officers pepper-sprayed woman with young child on Portland Avenue

Body camera footage of the woman being held down by an officer
Body camera footage of the woman being held down by an officer

Rochester Police released body camera footage Friday of a woman who was pepper-sprayed by officers on Portland Avenue last month while she was with her child. 

In a news conference Friday, the Police Accountability Board claimed the woman was also tackled, but that wasn’t clear in the video that police released.

The Feb. 22 video shows an officer stopping a woman on Clifford Avenue because she was accused of shoplifting at a nearby Rite Aid. She said she didn’t steal anything, and one officer told her to wait while another officer checked it out. The officer walked away, and the woman ran. The officer chased her down and pepper-sprayed her outside a nearby restaurant on Portland Avenue. That same officer said they “chopped at her arm” in order to get her to put her child down.

Additional footage released Friday by the PAB from a nearby security camera shows the woman putting the child down, struggling with the officer and the officer slamming her to the ground. 

Rochester Police say the child was not sprayed. The woman was charged with trespassing and given an appearance ticket. 

The body camera footage shows that when the woman was cuffed and put in the police car, her child began crying loudly for her mother. An officer tried to console the girl and keep her from running away, asking her name and if she wanted to see a dog, and rubbing her back. The officer asked another officer to block the view “because it doesn’t look good to restrain, like, a 3-year-old.” The officer eventually put the child in the police car with her mother. 

City police said an officer has been placed on administrative duty until an internal investigation has been completed.

PAB members said that two of the officers involved were also involved in a Jan. 29 incident on Harris Street when a 9-year-old was pepper-sprayed

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren released a statement on the incident Friday morning, citing her work on state-mandated police reform. She called the video disturbing and said it highlighted the need for systemic change. 

“When incidents like this occur, I am relieved that I ensured body-worn cameras are worn by our police, so we can see what occurs on our streets and hold officers accountable,” Warren said in the statement.

“We have to collectively push forward the request to the State allowing the City to immediately terminate officers for cause,” the statement continued. “Change will not come until we have the ability to fully hold our officers accountable when they violate the public's trust.”

Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan at a news conference on March 5, 2021
Credit Max Schulte/WXXI News
Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan at a news conference on March 5, 2021

In a Friday afternoon news conference, Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said  officials in her department continue to review the incident.

She was asked about the officers' tactics.

“We’ve had our defensive tactics people reviewing that footage, and this is something we do on a regular basis when we debrief and they’re authorized to take action to the extent necessary to take someone under control when you’re trying to arrest them,” Herriott-Sullivan said.

RPD Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson was asked about the tactics used in restraining the woman while she was with her child.

“I think in hindsight, if we speak to the officer, I’m sure that he would say that perhaps a different response would have been maybe taken during that time," Anderson said. "However, at this time, it’s an investigation, and those are things that will be fleshed out as we get through the investigation."

Herriott-Sullivan said when she came on board as interim chief last year, one of her main goals was to enact change in the police department, and she said there is a process currently going on to come up with a plan for doing that.

City Council President Loretta Scott released a statement, which said in part:

"The fact that this woman was pepper-sprayed while her toddler was in close proximity is totally unacceptable. While I am grateful and relieved that the child was physically unharmed, the video footage of this incident leaves no doubt that this young child was severely traumatized by the actions she witnessed and her unnecessary separation from her mother.

"I am deeply disheartened that we are dealing with yet another police/civilian non-violent encounter in our community that could have and should have been handled differently.  The amount of force used, coupled with the emotional damage suffered by this child, was disproportionate to the alleged crime that was committed."

Attorney and social justice advocate Danielle Ponder said that any process to change the RPD ought to involve dismantling the police department entirely. An immediate solution, she said, could be to decriminalize low-level offenses like petit larceny which could be addressed as civil cases instead.

“What in the world is an armed man doing going to a call that someone stole something at a Family Dollar or Rite Aid," said Ponder. "Last time I checked there's nothing in there that costs a million dollars or hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Based on her experience working with clients who have shoplifted, Ponder said that kind of behavior often stems from poverty, and sometimes drug use. Addressing the root cause would do more to help communities, she said.

“They either need rehabilitation centers or they need economic support. Neither of those they get by bringing an armed man," she said. "What they might end up getting is being pepper-sprayed while holding their child.”

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.
Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.