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City: Current Protocols Left PIC Out of Call Involving Child

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Rochester Police Department Interim Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan and Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson on Jan. 31, 2021, talk about the incident in which police used pepper spray on a 9-year-old. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

This story was updated Feb. 1 with comments from United Christian Leadership Ministry, suspensions of officers and proposed legislation to end use of irritants on minors.

The Rochester Police Department pledged continued effort to change the way it protects and serves the public in the aftermath of an incident in which a 9-year-old was pepper sprayed after failing to comply with repeated instructions from officers.

But during a news conference Jan. 31, RPD Interim Chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan and Executive Deputy Chief Andre Anderson, and Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren did not provide details of what they called continued culture change as they discussed the events from two days earlier.

One change underway would not have been available in this case. The city earlier in January started its Person in Crisis Team, in which two social workers or mental health professionals rather than police are dispatched to a subset of calls. Some elected officials criticized the RPD response and wondered why the PIC team was not dispatched.

According to the current pilot phase, PIC would not have qualified because the call came in as potentially involving a crime. Additionally, current protocols do not allow for PIC and police to respond together, even on calls that would qualify for PIC to go on its own.

It’s not known whether this incident will prompt the city and the Department of Recreation and Human Services, which operates the PIC team, to revise the pilot and include a paired response with PIC and RPD.

At a news conference Feb. 1, Rev. Lewis Stewart, president of United Christian Leadership Ministries, called on the mayor to streamline the pilot so that PIC is able to respond to a broader range of calls.

“We can’t afford to wait on it,” he said.

He also asked why clergy on patrol or other de-escalation tactics were not used.

Law enforcement agencies in Monroe County will be training all road patrol officers in crisis intervention, possibly starting this summer. Stewart said all police should have some mental health training, but they should not be the first responders.

“I just cannot trust the police to handle a situation because it will get out of control and it will be escalated just like it did on Friday,” he said. “You see the issue is cops are not trained to be servant protectors, do not train for mental health interventions. What they are trained for is a warrior culture, and you cannot mesh a warrior culture with talking people down and getting them the help that they need.”

The NAACP Rochester Branch issued a statement that read in part: “We need serious police reform now or these types of police incidents will continue to occur. There is no incentive for these incidents or unacceptable conducts to stop.”

Later on Feb. 1, the city announced Warren had ordered Herriott-Sullivan to immediately suspend the officers involved in the use of pepper spray. The suspensions will continue, at a minimum, until the results of the internal police investigation are concluded.

“What happened Friday was simply horrible, and has rightly outraged, all of our community,” Warren wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, state law and union contract prevents me from taking more immediate and serious action. I will lead the charge that these laws be changed as part of our response to the Governor’s Executive Order 203. And, we will be asking our state legislators to join me, and make numerous changes in Civil Service Law that would allow cities to more quickly issue discipline in cases like this one.”

The suspensions, by law and contract, begin the legal process to fully determine what happened and what discipline needs to be enforced in response.

As for what the city called a culture change in policing, “We’re already making recommendations that we plan to implement this week,” Anderson said at the City Hall news conference. He said de-escalation and “taking a tactical pause” would be included.

Exactly how and when those and other changes would be implemented with officers who respond to calls requiring a range of police and interpersonal skills were not explained.

Warren said the specifics would be part of the document being drafted to meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order that municipalities reform their police departments. Warren said the city’s plan could be released to the public within two weeks.

The governor’s mandate came after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, was underscored by the public announcement that Daniel Prude had died in Rochester three months before Floyd, and further impetus can be seen in the body-camera footage of the incident with the 9-year-old released by the city on Jan. 31.

The videos are at https://youtu.be/KjLgK0FUNBY and https://youtu.be/ku41-899CHo.

The two clips total about 16 minutes and are the first ones released from cameras worn by the numerous officers on the scene. RPD and the mayor did not say how many officers responded. The mayor said other body camera footage would be released after the child’s image was redacted

Even one change underway would not have been available in this case. The city earlier in January started its Person in Crisis Team, in which two social workers or mental health professionals rather than police are dispatched to a subset of calls. Some elected officials criticized the RPD response and wondered why the PIC team was not dispatched.

On Feb. 1, state Assemblyman Demond Meeks and state Senator Samra Brouk said they would introduce legislation to ban the use of chemical agents on minors.

“This legislation will ensure that when a child is in crisis, they will never again be met with such violence in the form of pepper spray or other chemical irritants,” Brouk said in a news release. “We know that trauma and adverse events in childhood have a lasting impact on the lives and health of individuals, and this legislation seeks to limit traumatic events happening to our children at the hands of law enforcement officers.”

“As a legislator, we are called to do more than offer words, we are called to change the laws to ensure this does not happen again,” Meeks said in the statement.

According to the current pilot phase, PIC would not have qualified because the call came in as potentially involving a crime. Additionally, current protocols do not allow for PIC and police to respond together, even on calls that would qualify for PIC to go on its own.

It’s not known whether this incident will prompt the city and the Department of Recreation and Human Services, which operates the PIC team, to revise the pilot and include a team approach with PIC and RPD.

The Police Accountability Board sent a letter to Herriott-Sullivan requesting information and cooperation for a review. The PAB lacks discipline powers but it can review RPD policies and procedures.

Warren said the event “redoubled my commitment to improving public safety in our community and reimagining policing for the benefit of all Rochester families and neighborhoods.”

Warren spoke passionately when she described her reaction to the video, and she said she could picture her 10-year-old daughter.

“This video, as a mother, is not anything you want to see,” she said. “We have to understand compassion, empathy when you have a child that is suffering this way and calling out for her dad.”

As of the news conference, the officers who responded to the call have not been identified. According to RPD, officers were dispatched to Avenue B for a report of family trouble involving a possible stolen car. During the response, police were told the girl may intend to harm herself or others.

The incident spread to Harris Street.

The video begins where a male officer is calling for the child to come back to what may be the initial scene, but the child keeps walking away and the officer follows.

After the officer reaches the child, the video contains sounds of a family argument and scenes of cars stopping and the officer having to avoid distractions.

In discussion of the video, Anderson described the child as thrashing and said she kicked an officer in the chest and dislodged the body camera.

At least one officer can be heard instructing the child to get into a patrol car to stay warm to await an ambulance to take her to Rochester General Hospital under mental hygiene law. She appears to resist, and Anderson said she was resisting going to the hospital.

According to the news release from the RPD, an officer did take the child to the ground and place her in handcuffs.

At one point, a female officer can be heard talking to the child and asking how she can help. The child repeatedly cries that she wants her father, and the female officer said she will get him, but the child needs to get fully into the car. After several warnings, another officer uses the spray.

Police said the child was taken to RGH and later released.

But how that was accomplished is the point of contention, Anderson said. “The mechanism that was used … that’s the conversation.”

Warren spoke of the need for compassion and wanting for your loved one what you’d want for yourself.

“We must change how we treat people,” she said. “… I know that’s a process. I know that’s a mind change. I know that’s a shift.”