NY officer on leave after tackling, pepper spraying mom with child nearby

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — A Rochester police officer is on administrative leave pending an investigation into a recent arrest where the officer is accused of tackling and pepper spraying a woman while her 3-year-old child was nearby.

The Rochester Police Accountability Board held a press conference Friday to discuss body-worn camera footage that showed the incident. Some of that body worn camera footage has since been released, and police say the full redacted version will be made available soon.

The incident took place around 4:30 p.m. on February 25 when officers responded to Portland Avenue for the report of a female shoplifter. Police say once officers arrived on scene, they found a woman who matched the description of the suspect.

“During the investigation and interaction between the officer and the female, a struggle ensued and the female was pepper sprayed and arrested,” Rochester police said in a Friday press release. “While this was taking place, her young child was on scene and with her. The child was not pepper sprayed or injured during the arrest.”

“City officials knew weeks ago about this incident,” Police Accountability Board Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds said. “The footage should have been handed to us.”

The woman was ultimately charged with trespassing and given an appearance ticket and the officer is on administrative leave until an internal investigation is complete.

According to the PAB, the footage shows a male officer attempting to arrest a woman who he believed may have stolen items from a drug store. After a brief conversation where the officer checks the woman’s purse, the woman runs with her 3-year-old to a nearby storefront.

“There are troubling parallels between this new incident and the one on Harris Street that occurred just a few weeks earlier,” PAB officials said in a statement. “Both incidents involved Black mothers. Both involved Black children. Both involved Black people obviously in crisis. Both involved officers using pepper spray on or around a Black child. Both appear to have not involved the Person in Crisis Team, the Family and Crisis Intervention Team, or mental health professionals. Both involved police officers doing nothing to effectively de-escalate the situation. Both involved apparent intimidation of bystanders filming the incident. What is most troubling about this incident, however, is this: the two officers involved here were also involved in the earlier pepper spraying incident on Harris Street.”

Rochester police made national headlines just a few weeks ago after a 9-year-old was pepper sprayed by officers. One officer was suspended and two were placed on leave in connection to that incident.

“For the police department to police it’s own culture, to be aware that we need more sensitivity training around children,” PAB member Rev. Matthew Nickoloff said. “Regardless of the details of this case that should be a basic assumption that people aren’t treated like things but human beings.”

Police say for this most recent incident, the child was away from her mother when the woman was pepper sprayed, adding that the child was not pepper sprayed.

“We have patterns of behavior with the Rochester Police Department that is concerning to us and we really need to have this being taken care of urgently,” said PAB Chair Shani Wilson.

Rochester police held a press conference Friday to discuss the incident.

“I came on board to enact change and that’s what we will continue to do, with the community’s help,” said Rochester Police Chief Cynthia Herriot-Sullivan.

The chief said the police would release the fullest extent of the video, with redactions, that the department is legally allowed to.

“The child was not pepper sprayed, and one of the goals here was to make sure the child was not hurt,” Chief Herriot-Sullivan said.

The chief said the Family and Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT) team was called for assistance.

The chief said the incident is under investigation and the officer involved is under administrative leave at this time. She said it appears that the officer acted in according to current protocol, but recognized that doesn’t necessarily mean the actions were OK.

“Some things to me aren’t as simple as whether a policy was followed or not,” Chief Herriot-Sullivan said. “Just because we can do certain things, doesn’t mean we should. Can we get to the same place by utilizing a different strategy?”

In regards to this incident, the chief said the responding officer appeared to follow protocol.

“We do have policies on the use of things such as pepper spray,” Chief Herriot-Sullivan said. “Generally, a good view to take on this is if the person is physically resisting then you’re safe with pepper spray usage.”

Rochester Police Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson laid out a few policy changes the department is working on implementing ahead of the April 1 police reform deadline laid out in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order.

“I think in hindsight, if we spoke to the officer about that, I’m sure they would say that perhaps a different response may be taken at that time,” Anderson said. “Everybody has a different view of what transpired. We’re cognizant of the fact that we want to make sure our initial response is one that merits respect in the community.”

The deputy Chief said the policies would address use of force guidance, mental hygiene detention protocol, and duty-to-intervene measures.

“We believe it’s important for all officers to intervene if they see something that should be stopped,” Anderson said. “It runs hand in hand with de-escalation.

The deputy chief said the department would also be rolling out new training courses on subjects like:

  • Compassion fatigue
  • De-escalation training
  • Pediatric training with professionals who have experience with child trauma
  • Training on race relations and diversity training
  • Leadership development

“We need to understand how to respond to young people and where they’re coming from,” Anderson said. “We’re looking forward to this training and we’ll be asking the community for help in this training.”

“One of the things we’d hope to see from officers is sympathy, and empathy, especially when children are involved,” PAB member Rev. Dr. Rickey B Harvey said. “One of the policeman stated ‘this is how we handle it’ and in the process of that a woman was thrown to the ground in front of her child. We’d like to see more sensitivity shown, especially to the Black and brown communities.”

Police say the Family in Crisis Intervention Team (FACIT) was called for assistance in regards to this incident, but PAB members say the footage does not show a FACIT team response.

According to a Police Accountability Board statement Friday:

After the woman is placed into the back of a police car, the officers confront a bystander who was filming the scene. One officer tells the bystander to, ‘Shut the hell up and get out of here.’ With the child crying inconsolably and screaming for her mother, an officer restraining the child persuades another to use a car to ‘block’ the child from public view because, ‘It doesn’t look good that I have to restrain, like, a three year old.’ While one officer says a call was made to the Family and Crisis Intervention Team, another officer says, ‘They said they’re not even logged in yet.’ The footage does not appear to show any crisis team arriving on the scene before the woman was driven away in a police car.

Rochester Police Locust Club President Make Mazzeo says the demands from city leaders “is a lot of politics.” He’s asking for a clear direction for change to be implemented immediately.

Mazzeo says with many of these incidents coming to light, there has not been one change to training or policy as a result. He says he’s open to change, but is calling on the city to end the politics with things like this and help make the alterations to tactics and techniques they want to see for the city’s 700 police officers.

“I’m sure there’s already a statement from the mayor out there,” Mazzeo said. “Tell me how tomorrow that changes anything? Tell me how when a girl was handcuffed up on 104, what changed since then? There’s not been one change since any major incident of public concern has occurred.”

Statement from Mayor Lovely Warren:

“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.

These videos are certainly disturbing. That’s why Chief Herriott Sullivan is not waiting for the Executive Order 203 process to be completed.  She is working to make sweeping, but necessary, policy and procedure changes along with mandatory training for officers regarding racism and implicit bias. The last month of community engagement has given her the ability to see the immediate changes that must take place while also working towards the systemic change included in the Executive Order 203 draft plan.

We are updating that plan based upon community feedback and will submit it to City Council next week so they can begin their review. We have to collectively push forward the request to the State allowing the City to immediately terminate officers for cause. Change will not come until we have the ability to fully hold our officers accountable when they violate the public’s trust.”

Statement from Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott

I am extremely disappointed and dismayed by the response of RPD officers involving an incident at 535 Portland Ave. that resulted in the arrest of a woman in the presence of her young child.

After learning of this incident, I requested that Chief Herriott-Sullivan share the body worn camera footage with me and the members of the City Council. After viewing this video, I am even more convinced that the current culture, policies and procedures of RPD must be changed immediately.

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.

I once again call for revised training for all RPD officers for the betterment of our community, and the health and safety of our citizens.”

Statement from Sen. Samra Brouk:

“The urgency grows every day to pass my bill in the Senate that prohibits the use of chemical irritants against minors (S4002). Once again, we have learned of a disturbing, traumatic, and violent response by police involving a young child in Rochester. I am outraged by new reports that RPD officers pepper sprayed a mother while she was holding her 3-year-old child—and, later in the incident, used a police vehicle to block their appalling actions from public view. Despite months of protest and discussion about the unnecessary use of force by Rochester’s law enforcement, this incident illustrates that our community’s concerns are not being heard. Our lives matter, and these abusive practices must end now.”

Rochester Police Accountability Board press conference

Rochester Police Department press conference

Check back with News 8 WROC as we will continue to update this developing story.

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