Furor in Rochester After Police Pepper-Spray Mother With Toddler

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A Rochester, N.Y., police officer tackled and used pepper spray on a woman who had been accused of shoplifting and was with her young daughter last month, according to police body-camera videos of the episode that were released on Friday.

It was the latest in a series of violent altercations between officers and Black residents that have heightened racial tensions in the city.

The videos of the woman’s arrest threatened to further tarnish the reputation of police department that is already under fire for handcuffing and using a chemical irritant on a 9-year-old girl in January and for the death last of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died after officers put a hood over his head and pressed his head to the pavement.

“It feels like our officers are out of control,” Mary Lupien, a City Council member, said in an interview.

A bystander’s video of the woman’s arrest, on Feb. 22, first appeared on Facebook the day it happened. But on Friday, the police released the officer’s body-camera footage and a video from a nearby security camera in response to demands from the city’s Police Accountability Board, which reviews misconduct.

Employees at a Rite Aid drugstore had called the police at about 4:30 p.m. that day after the woman refused to leave the store and knocked items to the floor, officials said. The body-camera video shows officers stopping the woman, who is holding her toddler, outside the store.

“Did you steal from that store?” one officer says to the woman. “Oh come on, they said you stole. What’d you take? Tell me the truth!”

The woman can be seen putting the tiny girl down and opening her purse to show the contents to the officer, the video shows. The officer demands that she wait while he speaks to store employees, but she runs across the street, gripping her child’s hand.

The officer catches her in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant and knocks her to the ground as the child begins to scream, the videos show. A second officer arrives and carries the toddler several feet away. The woman gets to her feet and tries to grab the girl.

Then, footage from a nearby security camera shows, the first officer sprays the woman quickly in the face with pepper spray before taking her to the ground again and putting her in handcuffs. For a moment, the child is suspended between her mother and an officer before her mother lets go of her.

The child was not sprayed, officials said.

Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, Rochester’s interim chief of police, said at a news conference on Friday that the episode was under investigation, but that it appeared the officers had followed department policies. The police, she said, “are authorized to the extent necessary to use certain tactics to get a person under control.”

Chief Herriott-Sullivan described the tussle over the little girl as the officer’s attempt to get the child out of harm’s way.

“They have taken the child to try to protect her and get her out of the way so she is not hurt,” she said.

Chief Herriott-Sullivan took over the department’s top leadership role after her predecessor, La’Ron Singletary, was fired amid allegations that he had participated in a cover-up related to Mr. Prude’s death.

Neither the woman nor the officers involved in the altercation were identified. One of the officers has been assigned to administrative duty, Chief Herriott-Sullivan said. The woman was charged with trespassing, the chief said.

Police officials said that the two officers were among a group that responded to a domestic violence call on Jan. 29 that led to the handcuffing and pepper-spraying a 9-year-old Black girl. Several officers who were involved in that episode have been placed on administrative leave; at least one was suspended.

The police chief’s efforts to play down the woman’s arrest rang hollow for some Rochester residents. The city was rocked by protests last summer after the circumstances of Mr. Prude’s death became public. That unrest returned briefly last week, when a grand jury declined to charge the officers in Mr. Prude’s death after an investigation by the attorney general.

Shani Wilson, the chair of the Police Accountability Board, said that the police had never informed the board about the February episode and that she had pressed for the release of the body-camera footage after stumbling across the bystander video on social media.

“How would we have even known?” Ms. Wilson said. “We are finding out about incidents in the public like everyone else and we are supposed to be the police reform board that is supposed to be changing how we police the citizens here. That’s not how this should work.”

In a statement, Mayor Lovely Warren described the videos as “disturbing.” She said the department was moving quickly on a police-reform plan ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo last year after protests erupted across the United States after the death of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of the police.

“Change will not come until we have the ability to fully hold our officers accountable when they violate the public’s trust,” Ms. Warren said.

Andre Anderson, the city’s executive deputy chief of police, said the department was introducing new training initiatives that would address issues like “compassion fatigue,” among officers. Also in the works, he said, were new policies for when it is appropriate to handcuff children and the proper approach to detaining people with mental health problems.

Both Mr. Prude and the woman who was involved in the Feb. 22 altercation appeared to have mental health issues when they were being arrested, the police said.

“When we respond to a person in crisis, our priority is to help that person,” Chief Anderson said. “While we may have to get them detained, we need to get them help.”

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