Police officers in Rochester, New York terrorized, handcuffed, and pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl on January 27. The body camera video, released by the Rochester Police Department the following Sunday, shows officers surrounding the child, restraining her, putting her in handcuffs, and attempting to force her inside the back of a police cruiser. The young Black girl is terrified, screaming, “I want my dad,” repeatedly throughout the over seven-minute encounter with the police. As police struggle to force the girl inside the car, they continue to threaten and cajole her. One officer can be heard saying, “You’re acting like a child.” “I am a child,” the traumatized girl responds.
Minutes into the encounter, the video shows a female RPD officer threatening the girl: “This is your last chance, otherwise pepper spray’s going in your eyeballs.” Soon after, the girl screams, “You said you were going to pepper spray me! No, please, no! Stop! I’ve got a bad arm!” Another officer orders, “Just spray her at this point.” The child continues to scream as a male officer sprays her directly in the face with pepper-spray. The police justified the vicious attack by claiming that the girl had expressed an intention to hurt herself and her mother.
Sholanda Jones, a member of Rochester’s Community Justice Initiative, says the targeting and criminalization of Black children in Rochester is not new. In May 2020, RPD officers handcuffed Na’ilah, a 10-year-old girl, during a traffic stop, refused to release her to her mother, and left her in the back of a police car for two hours before finally releasing her to her family.
“We need change in Rochester,” Jones says. “We saw how the police treated Na’ilah and now we have a 9-year-old-girl treated even worse. Our children are being traumatized, treated like they are not human. I watched the body camera footage [from Jan. 27th]. The first thing that officer did was grab the little girl. That’s not how you approach a child. It was clear the officer didn’t think of her as a child, didn’t ask any questions, just jumped into the situation with violence. They treated her like an adult because of their ignorance.”
Jones, along with Community Justice Initiative, Free the People ROC, and other organizations are demanding: 1) The firing of all officers involved in the January 27 incident; 2)The passage of Na’ilah’s Law, which would prohibit police from using handcuffs on children; 3) The abolition of “qualified immunity” for officers; 4) Changes to the City’s contract with the police union; and 5) Defunding the police and funding efforts for the community to police itself.
Mike Mazzeo, President of the Locust Club, Rochester’s notorious fraternal order of police, said the officers who terrorized the 9-year-old girl were following policy, but community members are outraged to see a child in clear distress criminalized and terrorized. At a community speakout held over Zoom on Jan. 3, Breyana Clark of Free the People ROC said: “We have to remember that the Rochester Police Department, any police department, is an institution. And Mike Mazzeo did exactly what he was trained to do to protect this institution, and that was to demonize a child and immediately tried to discredit the feelings of the community members that he is charged with ‘protecting and serving.’”
Throughout the speakout, community members referenced last year’s horrific murder of Daniel Prude at the hands of RPD, pointing to its pattern of excessive force, especially in response to mental health crises. “The entire family needed help and RPD failed again, along with our elected officials,” said Ashley Gantt of FTP-ROC, “I am so tired of our Black and Brown children being in positions before they are even adults to be on the receiving end of the brutality of police officers.”
On Feb. 1, FTP ROC, Community Justice Initiative and other organizations held a march to a Rochester police station to demand the firing of all officers involved in the brutal and inhumane incident. Protests continued into the night.
After the march, Mayor Lovely Warren announced that three of the officers involved had been removed from duty. None had been fired – one was suspended, and two were placed on administrative leave.
This incident has prompted a response by state legislators in Albany. Rochester state Senator Samra Brouk introduced a bill in the state Senate that would ban the police statewide from using chemicals, including pepper spray, on minors. Such rapid responses show that the state fears a growing uprising from the resistance to police terror.
Throughout the summer and fall the people of Rochester engaged in nightly protests demanding justice for Daniel Prude and all victims of racist police terror. Protesters faced regular, violent repression from the RPD, but the movement shows no sign of slowing down. These violent, racist police cannot keep collecting paychecks while they brutalize working people. The anti-racist movement will continue to demand that these officers be fired, and that laws protect people, not cops!