On a frigid, late January afternoon, Rochester, N.Y., police responded to a reported domestic disturbance on the city’s north side. Thirty minutes later, a 9-year-old girl was handcuffed, forced into a squad car and pepper-sprayed in her eyes.
She is Black. The officers are white. NPR is not identifying her because she is a minor.
Police body camera footage of the encounter sparked outrage and fresh scrutiny of how police treat people in distress.
We assembled three experts on policing, race and mental health to examine the Rochester police footage. They break down what went wrong and how it might have been handled differently.
As part of America’s ongoing reckoning with racial injustice, a handful of cities have pledged to fundamentally change how they respond to persons in a psychiatric, behavioral or substance abuse crisis. It’s estimated that Americans with mental illnesses make up almost a quarter of all those killed by police and at least 10% of all police calls for service.
A few cities, including San Francisco, Denver and Eugene, Ore., have programs that take police out of most non-violent crisis calls. Instead of police, mobile crisis teams of unarmed social workers, counselors and specially trained paramedics or EMTs respond.
When Rochester cops handcuffed and pepper-sprayed the 9-year-old the city had already pledged to make major changes, including creating a nonpolice crisis response team. Those promised changes followed community outrage over the death last March of Daniel Prude. Prude, a 41-year-old Black man who was in a mental health crisis, was killed after being physically restrained by Rochester police.