rochester police pepper spray child
Police handcuff and pepper spray 9-year-old while responding to call for help
02:09 - Source: HLN
CNN  — 

Rochester police had handcuffed a 9-year-old Black girl and put her in the back of a police car last month when an officer made a striking statement: “You’re acting like a child.”

“I am a child,” the girl responded.

Moments later, police pepper-sprayed the girl as she repeatedly cried and called for her father.

The encounter, which was caught on police body camera videos, has set off a firestorm of city officials and lawmakers calling the treatment unacceptable. It was the second time in the last year that Rochester police were criticized for how they handled a young Black girl.

The incidents underscore a broader issue that is often overlooked in protests against police violence in the Black community: the “adultification bias” of young Black girls.

Black girls, researchers and advocates say, are often stripped of their innocence at a young age and perceived and treated like adults. The perception dehumanizes them and makes Black girls targets of harsh treatment by police and severe disciplinary action at school, research shows. A 2017 study conducted by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that Black girls as young as 5 years old are viewed as needing less protection and nurturing than White girls.

The Rochester case – along with a string of other reports of police brutality against young Black girls in recent years – illustrates these findings.

“We’re not even seen as children,” said Monica Raye Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, an organization that advocates for reproductive justice for women of color. “We are seen as Black people who, to them, read as threats.”

Simpson recounted being pepper-sprayed by police at the age of 11. The officers, she said, had chased a group of young adults onto her porch and sprayed everyone who was present.

The case of the 9-year-old girl in Rochester remains under investigation. One officer involved in the incident was suspended, and two were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation, according to Rochester police.

In May 2020, Rochester police came under fire for handcuffing a 10-year-old girl during a traffic stop. Rochester police said the incident happened when officers pulled over the car she was in because the driver had an expired inspection tag and no front license plate. The police chief said the officer handcuffed the girl as a safety precaution because they were on the side of the road and the girl tried to pull away, according to Spectrum News.

Rochester activists say the treatment of the Black girls points to a systemic problem in the police department.

Shalonda Jones, a member of the Rochester-based Community Justice Initiative, said she is lobbying to get Na’ilah’s Law passed in honor of the 10-year-old girl who was handcuffed last year. The city law would prevent children from being handcuffed and require social services or child welfare to be present for police calls that involve children.

Jones said police are not properly equipped to handle a child who is experiencing a mental illness or breakdown.

“In both incidents, the police officers were beyond aggressive,” Jones said. “They have no remorse; they have no sympathy for the fact that it’s a child. It seems as if they are being trained to just attack Black and brown girls and boys.”

Black girls manhandled and body slammed

These incidents of perceived police abuse against young Black girls are often left out of the broader conversation of police brutality in the Black community.

Media coverage and discussion about the Black Lives Matter movement has largely centered around the police killings of Black men or boys – including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and George Floyd. Jacob Blake, who survived after being shot in the back seven times by a police officer, also drew national attention.

Last summer, the national dialogue became more inclusive of Black women after the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor fueled the reckoning on racism and policing.

Still, young Black girls were rarely mentioned, said Beatriz Beckford, national director of youth and education justice for MomsRising, a group that advocates for women, mothers and families.

“We see Black women and girls invisiblized in the conversation of police violence,” Beckford said. “And we don’t see the same amount of outpouring or outcrying of disgust when it comes to little Black girls and Black women.”

Beckford said she believes police often associate being Black with criminality or guilt. Despite their young age, Black girls are not exempt from this stereotype, Beckford said.

Reports and videos have surfaced of Black girls as young as age 6 being manhandled, body slammed and aggressively restrained by police officers. The police rarely face disciplinary action, advocates say.

Most recently, cell phone video captured a school resource officer in the Orlando area body slamming a 16-year-old Black girl last month before handcuffing her. The girl’s family said she now suffers memory loss and headaches from the incident.

  • In September 2019, Orlando police arrested a 6-year-old Black girl who reportedly was having a temper tantrum at school. In police body cam footage, the girl is heard crying and pleading for a second chance. One of the officers involved in the arrest was terminated.
  • Police in St. Paul came under fire in 2019 for aggressively restraining a 13-year-old girl while attempting to arrest her while she lied face down on the floor of a UPS store.
  • In 2017, a school resource officer in North Carolina was sharply criticized for hoisting a 15-year-old girl into the air and body slamming her onto the floor while trying to break up a fight. The girl suffered a concussion.
  • In 2016, a San Antonio Independent School District police officer was fired for body slamming a 12-year-old girl face first into the ground.

Organizations such as the African American Policy Forum have spent years working to call attention to police violence against Black women and girls. In 2014, the AAPF launched the #SayHerName campaign to raise awareness of what the organization calls the “invisible names and stories” of Black women and girls who have been victims of police brutality.

One of the most egregious cases dates back to 2010 when 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones was fatally shot by Detroit police during a raid. In 2015, the charges against the police officer who killed Aiyana were dismissed.

“Black women and girls as young as 7 and as old as 93 have been killed by the police, though we rarely hear their names,” AAPF says on its website.

Members of Community Justice Initiative along with supporters marched Feb. 1, 2021 from N. Clinton Avenue and Ave. D in Rochester to the Rochester Police Department's Clinton Section at N. Clinton Ave. and Upper Falls Boulevard to protest the police handcuffing and using pepper spray on a 9-year-old girl last Friday.

‘Rooted in racism’

The issue is also quantified in reports of school discipline.

The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that girls of color are disproportionately overdisciplined at school compared to White girls.

The study, which used data from the 2017-2018 academic year, concluded that Black girls risk facing restraint at a rate two times higher than White girls and face the risk of arrest at a rate nearly four times higher than White girls.

Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, said some of the key reasons for this disparity were that young Black girls encounter the same stereotypes that adult Black women face. They’ve been labeled as being angry, threatening and are hypersexualized.

As a result, authorities treat them like “mini adults” during encounters, Epstein said.

“This is happening on a scale that is unacceptable and it indicates that this is not about a few bad apples,” Epstein said. “But it’s a systemic problem that is rooted in racism, rooted in developmentally inappropriate approaches to children that needs to be fixed.”

Epstein said police need more training on how to avoid “adultification bias” of Black children.

On Thursday, the Rochester Police Department released additional body camera footage of the officers’ encounter with the 9-year-old girl.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement saying new video of the incident was “even more shocking and disturbing than the last.”

“New Yorkers in every corner of the state are sickened by these actions and as a father of three daughters, I’m furious. There must be a thorough and competent investigation – period,” Cuomo said in the statement. “This is symptomatic of a broader problem – the relationship between police and communities is damaged and needs to be fixed, and that’s why we’re requiring police departments statewide to reimagine their forces or forgo state funding.”

CNN’s Emma Tucker contributed to this report.