Rochester police say they were "required" to use handcuffs and the irritant against the girl for her own safety while they were responding to a report of “family trouble.”
A nine-year-old girl was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by police in the US city of Rochester, sparking new outrage over excesses committed by the country's law enforcement.
Deputy Police Chief Andre Anderson said on Sunday the girl, who has not been named, had been suffering from a serious mental health emergency, reportedly threatening to take her own life and that of her mother.
Officers called to the scene on Friday eventually responded by handcuffing her, before trying to force her into a car and pepper-spraying her when she resisted, body cam videos released by the city's police force showed.
Footage of police violence against African Americans, including the May 2020 killing of George Floyd, sparked a summer of protests across the US against racial injustice and police brutality last year.
The ethnicity of the young girl in the Rochester incident has not been disclosed.
Rochester police on Saturday said they were "required" to use handcuffs and the irritant against the girl for her own safety.
READ MORE: Why police brutality persists in the US
A nine-year-old Black girl was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed in Rochester, US.— TRT World (@trtworld) February 2, 2021
The police said they were called in after she reportedly threatened to take her own life and that of her mother's, and that the officer had to pepper spray her as she wasn’t listening to them pic.twitter.com/ght5Fiogq2
Rochester officers suspended
The city of Rochester has suspended police officers seen in body-camera videos spraying a chemical “irritant” in the face of a distraught and handcuffed 9-year-old girl, officials also announced on Monday.
The city did not specify how many officers were suspended. The suspensions will last at least until an internal police investigation is completed.
Mayor Lovely Warren met with the interim police chief, Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan, before announcing the disciplinary action.
“What happened Friday was simply horrible, and has rightly outraged all of our community,” Warren said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, state law and union contract prevents me from taking more immediate and serious action."
New York Attorney General Letitia James said on Monday her office was “looking into” what happened.
She called the incident “deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable.”
'I am a child!'
Body cam footage initially shows officers attempting to provide assistance to the girl.
When her mother arrives, the pair argue and the officers, after failing to deescalate the situation, decide to transport the increasingly distressed child to hospital.
A struggle ensues to get the child into a police vehicle, that ends with her being pepper-sprayed.
The video shows the girl crying out repeatedly for her father, while being physically restrained.
At one point an officer can be heard saying "You're acting like a child," to which she responds "I am a child!"
Not the first incident in the city
The incident is the second time in a year that Rochester has come under national scrutiny for police violence, following the killing last March of Daniel Prude, who died after police hooded and forced him face down on the road.
The death of Prude, an African American who was also undergoing a mental health crisis at the time of his detention, prompted a grand jury probe and sparked mass protests.
Rochester city council members condemned the footage, accusing the police of excessive force in a situation where mental health professionals should have been involved.
Local police chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan also acknowledged that the police had acted excessively.
"I'm not going to stand here and tell you that for a 9-year-old to have to be pepper-sprayed is OK," she said on Sunday. "It's not."
But the local police union president defended the officers' actions, saying that "limited resources" had left them no choice but to use pepper-spray against the child.
"This is not about lack of compassion or empathy," Mike Mazzeo said on Sunday.
"We're dealing with a very difficult situation."