Why Can't Rochester Police Stop Pepper Spraying Children?
At the beginning of February, the Rochester, New York, Police Department attracted national attention after they dealt with a suicidal 9-year-old by pepper spraying her in the face. One might think that after that, and after they suffocated Daniel Prude this summer by placing a plastic bag over his head while kneeling on his back, the RPD might be a little more wary about doing obviously horrible things. But one would be wrong.
Because on February 22, another Rochester police officer decided to pepper spray a woman who was holding her three-year-old child. Now, the police have stated that the child did not get pepper sprayed and was not hurt, but pepper spray is an aerosol, meaning that there was a pretty good chance of that going very, very wrong. It disperses.
Why did they do this? Because they thought she might have stolen something from Rite-Aid. They looked through her purse and didn't find anything. They didn't even know what she had stolen, just that some Rite-Aid employees had called the police to report a woman stealing, and that this woman "matched the description." The officer actually had to go back into the Rite-Aid to ask them what it was that they believed she stole.
The woman was not actually in Rite-Aid at the time, but rather was walking into a take-out place nearby with her child when police confronted her in the parking lot.
There are 80 minutes of video of the incident.
RPD BWC CR2021-033140 - 535 Portland Ave youtu.be
City Council members were able to see the entire unedited video earlier this week.
"What I saw on the footage was a woman trying to enter a restaurant, being physically restrained by an officer while she was holding the child," [City Council member Mary] Lupien said. "She put the child down and he wrestled her to the ground in front of the child."
The officer is alone at this point, Lupien said, when another officer arrives. The child then tried to help her mother and was restrained by the second officer, Lupien added.
The first officer handcuffed the mother "and then pepper sprayed her in the face while she was holding her daughter's hand," Lupien said.
"As we all know from (earlier) protests, pepper spray goes everywhere immediately, so this child was exposed to the gas," Lupien said. The mother maintained a grip on her daughter's hand, while the other officer was holding her other arm. The officer was "pulling" at the child, so "she was suspended between two people," Lupien added.
The second officer "karate chops" the mom's wrist to break her hold, Lupien said. She ends up back on the ground and an officer "puts his knee on her back with his whole body weight to get her handcuffed," Lupien said, "all while the child was watching."
All of this without any proof that she actually stole anything, by the way — not that there is a single thing in Rite-Aid that would be worth that, anyway. That is not a normal way for police to respond to a shoplifting incident.
Another video depicts an officer restraining the child while the mother is already in a police patrol vehicle, Lupien concluded.
"It's really similar to the incident with the 9-year-old," Lupien said. "'What's your name? Tell me your name, dear. Your mom's OK. What's your name?' officers repeatedly asked her. He must've said it 50 times. Really, that's how you calm down a child?
"At one point, he says, 'Can you pull your car over here, because it looks bad that I'm restraining a 3-year-old?"'
Oh, you think?
I worked retail for years (several of them in Rochester, New York, in fact), and let me assure you that this is not a typical loss prevention strategy. In fact, because so many things can go wrong (although not usually this wrong) with accusing people of shoplifting, most stores account for "shrinkage" in their budgets. It also costs a hell of a lot less to lose a tube of Maybelline Great Lash than it does to lose a customer and everyone they know if you are wrong. Or hell, even if you're right and you can't prove it.
Because guess what? If you're wrong and you publicly humiliate someone — for instance by having them pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and arrested in front of their child — that person can actually sue you and the store you work at. This woman might not be able to sue the police given the qualified immunity nonsense that will hopefully be done away with soon if the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act can get passed, but she can and should sue the everloving fuck out of Rite-Aid.
The Rochester Police Accountability Board issued a statement today about the incident, via WHAM:
"These disturbing incidents prove that the Rochester Police Department needs to fundamentally change its organizational culture," the statement continued. "These incidents also affirm our community's call to fundamentally reimagine public safety. To help make these changes, the City must fully cooperate with all our investigations. The City must also immediately release all body worn camera footage of this incident. Finally, there must be a public meeting with RPD leadership to discuss how we can work together to keep our children, our neighbors, and all Rochesterians safe."
Regarding the incident on the Portland Avenue, members of the PAB say they wanted to see, in the body camera footage, greater displays of de-escalation, investigation and sensitivity.
"(A) mother was thrown to the ground in the presence of her three-year-old child," said Rev. Rickey Harvey. "And so, what we would like to see is the handling of things being handled in a way that shows sensitivity, in a way that shows the officers are trained and they are there to protect – yes, the businesses – but the citizens as well."
"I want to make very clear that we have not determined that any specific officer is guilty of specific wrongdoing," said Executive Director Conor Dwyer Reynolds. "We have not pre-judged that. We are describing what we saw."
There is something deeply wrong with the Rochester Police Department. There is something wrong with who they are hiring in the first place, if they are hiring people who would respond to an alleged shoplifting at a drug store with freaking pepper spray, or a suicide call with pepper spray. There is something wrong with the culture there and the fact that these cops do these things because they know they'll get away with them. I know people who have had run-ins for the exact same shit with the RPD and the cops in the suburbs. The difference is night and day, and this has been the case at least since I was in high school.
Part of the reason that these cops behave this way is because they are racist, no denying that. But another part of it is that they know they can get away with it. Because the system itself is also racist. And classist. Because they're only doing this shit in the parts of the city that are both poor and majority black, and they're not doing it in areas where people have a little more money and there are more white people. They know that if they tried to pull something like that in practically any other area of the city or in the suburbs, that it would be over for them. They also know it would be embarrassing for them. And their departments. Can't exactly go around tackling and pepper spraying suspected shoplifters and their toddlers outside of Pittsford Wegman's, can they? (Pittsford Wegman's is very fancy.)
Hopefully there will be consequences for this, because if there aren't, it's just gonna keep happening.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse