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Handcuffed and Pepper Sprayed: A 9-year-old’s Encounter with Police Cries Out for Appropriate Mental Health Response

In February, the deeply unsettling story of the use of pepper spray by Rochester police on a handcuffed nine-year old girl came to light. According to news reports, police were responding to a domestic disturbance in which the child was threatening her life as well as her mother’s. After attempts by the officers to restrain the child, the situation escalated to the point of force, verified by police body camera footage. As of the writing of this piece, initial disciplinary action has been taken against officers and the city’s Mayor and Interim Police Chief have condemned the act along with a chorus of other leaders and advocates. In addition, a measure to ban use of pepper spray on children at the state level has been proposed. 

The broader reaction and outrage to such an occurrence has followed the expected path – disapproval, protest, vilification, and calls for change. All human, all part of the healing process. However, in the weeks that follow, what typically happens is that the broader population will move on and put the horrific memory of a child being pepper sprayed out of mind. Our reactions will diminish (or move on to other things) and we’ll never get to the proactive solutions that could have prevented this to begin with. 

When we at ICS view this, we not only see the tragic and unnecessary use of force against a child – we see systemic failure. Yes, the officers involved need to be held accountable; yes, there needs to be structural, legislative changes that prioritize non-violent options. But that’s not all – those are the bare minimum and only serve as a band aid on a deeper wound. 

We need to explore how we got to a place where something like this was even possible in the first place. 

The fact that accessible and adequate mental and emotional support are not easily available for all children and families is a systemic failure. The realization that in a moment of severe crisis, the guardian’s only option was to call the police is a systemic failure. And, if we can be brutally honest – we do not believe that the officers in question started their day with the intent of using pepper spray on a child. This does not in any way excuse their actions; however, that the police are broadly the ones who we, as a society, charge to manage an extraordinarily complicated situation such as this, with little or no training or support, is also a systemic failure in and of itself.  

Simply, the police should have been the last option, if at all – not the first and certainly not the only one. 

In the past two decades, research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) has increased our awareness of the precariousness of child mental health and that of their guardians, both currently exacerbated by COVID-19. The lack of affordable and accessible family and mental health resources aggravates this condition thereby placing children and families in untenable mental health situations. Further, as advocates for police reform (including police themselves) have noted: there is a striking void of non-force using, community-health-engagement-like staff and resources available from any public source; and, conflict resolution training opportunities for police officers are few and far between. Given this chain of omissions, the pepper spraying of a child was bound to happen. Even worse, without significant change, something similar or worse is likely to happen again.  

In addition to the factors mentioned above, one other is currently separate pending confirmation, but seems unavoidable: race. The race of the child has not been verified, but the visual evidence at the very least broaches the topic. It appears that two white officers restrain, handcuff, and pepper spray a Black child. 

Several studies have documented the “adultification” of Black girls, a bias that the Georgetown Center on Law and Poverty describes as seeing “black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than white girls of the same age, especially between 5–14 years old.” In the video of the incident moments before the use of pepper spray, the white police officer says to the girl, “you’re acting like a child” to which she responds, “I am a child.”  

The entirety of it is unacceptable. While we as a society are not all responsible for the incident itself, we do bear responsibility for the horrific sequence of systemic failures that led to it in the first place. 

Over the next few weeks, ICS will continue to explore this incident in the hopes of starting a conversation and identifying proactive solutions. We’ll explore the intersection of race, implicit bias, children, and systems. In addition, in the coming months, we plan to expand our implicit bias trainings to do our part to ensure that something like this never happens again.   

We must do better for all children everywhere.  

John Young Shik Concklin

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