The mother of the 9-year-old Rochester, N.Y., girl who was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police said Wednesday that she repeatedly told an officer that her daughter was having a mental health breakdown and she pleaded with them to call a specialist instead of trying to detain her.
The officer said “no,” Elba Pope said.
Pope, 30, said the incident, which sparked nationwide outrage and prompted fresh scrutiny of how law enforcement agencies deal with people in emotional distress, has left her rattled and fearful that her daughter could suffer long-term emotional trauma.
“I was saying, ‘We need mental health out there,’ ” Pope said in an interview. “He ignored me.”
[Rochester officials pledge to release more footage of officers who pepper-sprayed girl]
Justin Roj, a spokesman for Rochester city government, did not directly address the mother’s criticisms of the officer’s alleged response.
Mayor Lovely Warren “continues to be outraged by what occurred on Friday, and remains concerned that the child involved and her family get the support they need,” Roj said in a statement. “The mayor is continuing to work diligently to reform our police department and ensure accountability.”
Pope spoke out one day after she and her attorneys filed a formal notice that they plan to sue the city, citing “emotional distress, assault, battery, excessive force, false arrest, false imprisonment,” as well as other potential violations of the girl’s “constitutional rights.” Pope is also calling on the city to fire the officer who pepper-sprayed her daughter.
About 20 demonstrators protested outside the Rochester Police Locust Club, which serves as the police union, on Wednesday afternoon, calling for new laws that would ban police officers from handcuffing or pepper-spraying children.
On Monday, Warren (D) announced she was suspending three officers who were involved in the matter. Warren also called Pope on Sunday to have a “mother-to-mother” talk about the incident, said Lorenzo Napolitano, one of Pope’s attorneys.
Police body camera footage shows officers chasing and restraining Pope’s daughter after she told them the girl was suicidal and threatened to harm her mother as well. The girl was sobbing as officers tried to force her into a patrol car. The video then shows an officer pepper-spraying the girl, who was handcuffed.
Pope said she had called police on Friday and asked that they respond to her house so she could file a report about her car possibly being stolen.
[Rochester suspends police officers who pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl]
When an officer arrived, Pope said her daughter “ran out of the house” and “up the street” screaming and crying.
Pope said her daughter had a similar emotional breakdown in late November, which required her to be evaluated at a hospital under New York’s mental hygiene law, when she became upset over being grounded for failing to do her homework.
Pope said she could immediately tell that the girl’s distress on Friday also required an evaluation by a medical health expert.
“It just so happened she chose that moment to run out of the house, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, here we go,” Pope said. “I had to go get the officer and say, ‘Sir, I know my daughter, and she is about to have a mental health slowdown, can you please contact someone?”
With the girl now about a block and a half away from home, Pope, who is pregnant, said the girl kept screaming she wanted her dad and was about “to kill me and my unborn baby and herself.”
“I said again, ‘We need mental health out here,’ ” Pope said. “He ignored me.”
Pope said the officers then demanded that Pope return to the house, leaving the officers alone with her daughter. Pope said she found out only the following day that officers subsequently used pepper spray on her daughter.
According to the “notice of claim” filed against the city, police then “grabbed the child” and would “not let the child go.”
“Police became aggravated by the child resisting being put into the police car and began to pull the child’s arm farther behind her back causing her great pain,” the legal claim states. “The child then sat up in the car and Police stated that they were going to pepper-spray the child.”
Rochester police officials have not released the identities of the officers who responded to the incident.
Mike Mazzeo, the president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, did not respond to requests for comment. At a news conference earlier in the week, Mazzeo defended the officers and said they told Pope to return to her house because her presence appeared to be making the girl’s behavior even more unstable.
Napolitano said Pope also hopes any eventual lawsuit she files against the city also includes demands for “systematic changes” in how Rochester police deal with people who might be having an emotional or mental health episode.
Rochester police faced a backlash from the community last year after the death of Daniel T. Prude, who died after officers fitted him with a “spit hood,” used to protect police from detainees’ bodily fluids. Prude was suffering from a mental health issue.
“This is not the first incident where Rochester police mishandled people who have had a mental health crisis . . . and [Pope] would really like to see change,” Napolitano said.
Loretta C. Scott, president of the Rochester City Council, said the need for enhanced training and policy changes does not excuse the behavior of the officer who pepper-sprayed the girl. Scott wants the officer, who is being paid pending the outcome of a formal investigation, to be fired.
“Whether they received training or not, there should have been enough empathy and compassion about somebody else’s child to not pepper-spray them,” Scott said. “It’s just basic humanity to not treat a child in that fashion.”
Will Powers, an organizer with the Community Justice Initiative, said protesters who gathered outside the Rochester Police Locust Club on Wednesday were upset that Mazzeo had defended the officers. Shalonda Jones, a member of CJI, ran through a foot of snow to plant a Black Lives Matter flag in front of the building.
When Jones and the crowd moved closer to the building’s entrance, five police officials met them at the front of the parking lot. Jones spoke with one police representative as another organizer, Diallo Payne, ridiculed the officers over a blow horn.
Protesters called officers “savages” and “cowards” over loudspeakers, as union officers warned them of trespassing on private property. After 20 minutes, people began retreating, but organizers said they’ll continue to demonstrate, even after the demands are met. “I’m tired of crying,” Jones said. “I’m angry.”
KJ Edelman reported from Rochester.