Lawmakers seek reform after city police pepper-spray minor

Feb 1, 2021


State Sen. Samra Brouk, left, and Assemblyman Demond Meeks.
Credit Provided

State lawmakers are proposing reform after Rochester Police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old Black girl Friday.

New York State Senator Samra Brouk and Assemblymember Demond Meeks announced Monday that they are proposing legislation to ban the use of chemical agents -- like pepper spray -- on minors by police.


"This isn’t the first time we saw a situation go awry when someone was having a traumatic experience or mental health crisis, just as we saw with Daniel Prude who lost his life,” said Brouk, who is chair of the Senate Committee on Mental Health. “So, I think there’s a lot of work we need to do on the entire continuum of care.”


Police were called to a house on Avenue B about family trouble and a possible stolen car. There, police said they were informed of a child threatening to harm herself and others. 


When officers approached the girl, she was already in distress and became more agitated. An officer handcuffed her on the ground. Later, she refused to bring her feet inside the patrol car.


Rochester Police body-camera footage shows police detaining and pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl on Friday.
Credit RPD body camera footage still

RPD and the city have released the bodycam footage detailing the incident: “I want my dad, I want my dad,” the girl cried while handcuffed inside the patrol car with her feet outside of the car.

“What’s her name?” said an officer.

“I don’t know her name,” said another officer. 

Shortly after, she is pepper-sprayed.

The officers have been suspended with pay, Mayor Lovely Warren’s office announced Monday.

Tharaha Thavakumar, senior school therapist with the Genesee Mental Health Center, said she has handled similar situations and that her approach would have been profoundly different.


“For me, I would have tried to build rapport, listened to the child, understood, even acknowledging that she was scared and frustrated is huge,” said Thavakumar. “I think those are vital steps that were missed in the beginning.”


Just about everyone is under trauma right now, said Thavakumar, and responding to 911 calls the way Rochester Police did on Friday makes these situations more difficult. 

“This is where they could have been keeping the child safe by calling the emergency FIT team or mental health crisis team and say, ‘Hey, we need you to respond. Can you come?’” said Thavakumar.

Instead, local mental health advocate Melanie Funchess said the situation could potentially have long-term physical and emotional effects on the child. 


“Once she has been violated, it can change the way that she sees first responders. I’m not saying this will happen, because we don’t know what will happen. Right?” said Funchess. “But … we have triggered a trauma response in a child with a developing brain.” 


More needs to be done locally to remove police response to mental health emergencies, said Funchess. The incident happened in a neighborhood where more than 50 percent of households are in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 


“It takes a lot for a person to get to this point,” said Brouk. “How are we funding mental health hospitals and mental health care providers and how are we reaching communities that aren’t getting that care now?”