The Public Safety Building on Exchange Street, 5/30/20 [Photo: David Kramer from A Black Lives Matter solidarity rally with commentary from Kholaa and a walk down Joseph Avenue]
Here we go again. The Rochester Police Department released body-cam footage Sunday (Jan 31) showing a 9-year-old girl being apprehended and sprayed with what the department called an “irritant” following a “family trouble” call. The “irritant” is a weapon that can cause uncontrollable watering of the eyes, extreme burning of the eyes and nose, temporary blindness, nasal and sinus discharge, and burning of the skin. The “family trouble” was a mental health crisis involving a small child screaming uncontrollably for help.
Real change in how law enforcement responds to public safety will not occur until our officials start using language that tells the truth and refuses to disguise what they are thinking. The young girl in that video was not “handled,” as the deputy chief of police stated in a subsequent press conference. She was manhandled. Nor was this about “code response protocol,” as one official described the RPD’s actions that day. This was child abuse. If that was not child abuse, what is?
Real change will come when there is change. Not gradual change and progressive change. Not “tactical pauses” and policies “underdevelopment.” Not “baby steps” and “shifts in culture.” What will create change is action. Mayor Warren has the power to leverage her authority and stop something that should have never been allowed to happen in the first place. She can use her position of authority to compel the RPD to place an immediate ban on the use of “pepper spray” on unarmed children. She can also require the presence of at least one crisis response professional at any dispute involving minors. Needless to say, this will necessitate a major financial investment and support from the entire Greater Rochester region. But we can no longer afford not to.To be fair, I realize that the police have one of the hardest jobs in the world, and this is one of the most stressful times in the history of our nation. It is clear, we are all under tremendous stress and the pressure manifests in small ways and big ways. This young girl was crying out for help because she could not manage the trauma anymore, forcing her to flee from a home that should have been a place of parental love and refuge. When she ran away she should have run into the arms of those who are expected to protect and serve her. That did not happen. When it mattered the most to this frightened and brutalized child, she was let down by every system in our community. As one of my colleagues in the field said, “Where was the village? We wait until the police sprayed the child with pepper spray and then cry out in outrage. But this child has cried out for help before, likely many times, and has been neglected by the system. That’s why she resisted.”
Yes, the police are accountable for their actions but so are we. What is needed is a sweeping systems change, one that truly values the overall wellbeing of the individual, regardless of age, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and economic status. If we are being honest with ourselves, we are all to blame for what happened that tragic afternoon. It takes a village and hers had collapsed. Now the important question is what are we going to do to help rebuild it.
UPDATE: On Sunday 2/7, the Democrat and Chronicle printed a version of the essay.