Police Handcuffed & Pepper-Sprayed A 9-Year-Old Girl, The Latest Example Of Why They Shouldn’t Interact With Kids

Photo: Libby March for The Washington Post/Getty Images.
Over the weekend, disturbing body camera footage of Rochester, NY police officers hand-cuffing and pepper-spraying a child surfaced, causing increased scrutiny of a police department that already faced backlash in the death of 41-year-old Daniel Prude, a Black man who was in mental distress when police officers put a hood over his head, eventually killing him.  
On Friday afternoon, Rochester police responded to a family disturbance call. Moments later, as footage shows, police can be seen chasing a 9-year-old girl down a snow-covered street. After catching up with the child, who becomes more upset, police handcuff her while she kicks, screams, and pleads to see her father. After multiple attempts to force the child into the back of a police car, an officer is heard saying, “You’re acting like a child.”
“I am a child,” the young girl responds. Minutes later, the child is pepper-sprayed while handcuffed, then left in the back of the car to scream and cry in pain. 
This is just the latest example of how police officers are unable to adequately respond to people in various states of duress — including, and perhaps especially, children. In 2019, a viral video showed a North Carolina Sheriff Deputy throw a middle school-aged child to the ground violently — twice. In 2021, another viral video showed a “school resource officer” body slam a 16-year-old girl to the ground, causing memory loss, headaches, blurry vision, and sleep deprivation, according to the child’s mother.
The proof that police departments are ill-equipped to help children in mental and emotional duress are as horrific as they are ample, and further highlight the need for community policing and support alternatives. Currently, most police departments do not offer youth-specific training, beyond a brief course on juvenile law, according to a report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, an advocacy and research group founded in 1893. Sara Douglas, PsyD, a psychologist specializing in pediatric neuropsychology, tells Refinery29 that children have needs that differ vastly from those of adults. Those needs require an entirely different approach by police officers, teachers, and others in positions of power and influence. 
“There are many reasons why children would react differently than adults, but their brains — including their frontal lobe, which houses a portion of our brains that is responsible for emotional regulation — are not fully developed,” Dr. Douglas explains. “Individuals’ abilities to react in stressful (or even non-stressful) situations is in part mediated by the development of this complex brain region. Children quite literally are not as cognitively capable of reacting with the same level of control as are adults.” 
Yet police officers are, more often than not, trained to treat children and adults in the same way. In 2011, teens and young adults made up roughly 40% of all police street stops, per a Justice Department survey. And due to viral videos and body camera footage, the country has been privy to some of the violent outcomes of these stops: police officers arresting children for skipping school; throwing children to the ground; pepper-spraying children who are already detained; threatening, screaming, and otherwise berating kids into submission even though science shows that children are prone to act “more impulsively.” 
“This is a strong indicator of exactly how ill-equipped law enforcement personnel are when handling individuals with mental health issues,” Nicole Hensley, an assessment specialist who has a MS in school psychology and is currently a PsyD practicum student, tells Refinery29. “A 9-year-old child in need of caring and compassionate intervention was treated as a criminal and basically assaulted by the very people who have sworn to protect and serve. When people hear ‘defund the police’ and it makes them scared or immediately visualize a world without police protection, what they need to see instead is an opportunity for professionals in various areas being more readily available for situations such as this.”
In the absence of proper training — or funds being redirected to community organizations and other leaders who specialize in mental health care — a cycle of police-involved abuse that perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline is left to flourish. One 2013 study found that children and young adults who are stopped or arrested by law enforcement are more likely to offend in the future. Currently, as many as 48,000 youth are incarcerated in the U.S. on any given day — many are Black children and children of color. 
“Everybody should understand that different populations of people are likely to view different things as threatening,” Dr. Douglas says. “A white child may not perceive a police officer to be a threat, whereas a Black child may. Children should be given an extra clear understanding of what is happening, as they likely do not have the background or procedural knowledge to be able to pragmatically process what is happening, and their emotional reactions are likely to be reflective of this confusion, which can be terrifying.” 
The 9-year-old girl who was handcuffed and pepper sprayed was taken to Rochester General Hospital. In the final scenes of the video, an officer is heard saying “unbelievable” to the officer who pepper-sprayed the child. Unbelievable, indeed.

More from US News