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Mother of pepper-sprayed 9-year-old says daughter is coping

February 4, 2021 GMT

A 9-year-old Black girl who was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by white police officers typically is “a giant teddy bear” who loves music and playing the video game Fortnite, according to her mother, who questions whether race was a factor in how her daughter was treated.

“I don’t think she was looked at as a normal child,” Elba Pope told The Associated Press on Wednesday. “Had they looked at her as if she was one of their children, they wouldn’t have pepper sprayed her.”

Pope’s daughter was detained by police in the city of Rochester, in western New York, last Friday after becoming emotional during a family argument. She said she wants the officers fired and has signaled a possible lawsuit.

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The rough treatment of the child came even as the Rochester Police Department is under scrutiny for the death of Daniel Prude last spring. In that case, police handcuffed Prude, who is Black, then placed a hood on his head and pressed him to the ground until he stopped breathing.

Pope said she called police during an argument with her spouse over a car Friday, but asked officers to call mental health services when it became clear her fourth-grade daughter was headed for a meltdown.

Instead, an officer “threatened me and told me to go home or he was going to take me to jail,” said Pope, who is seen on the video yelling at her daughter and people in passing cars.

Police body camera video released Sunday showed officers restraining and scolding the distraught girl as they struggled in the snow to put her in the back of a police cruiser. At one point, an officer tells the young girl, who has been begging to talk to her father, that she is “acting like a child.”

Once in the car, the girl, her hands behind her back, screams “Please, no, stop!” as a female and male officer, who appear to be white, discuss pepper spraying her eyes.

“Please wipe my eyes!” she begs after the male officer sprays her.

“Unbelievable,” he says after shutting the car door.

Pope said she did not see police handcuff or spray her daughter.

The officers have been suspended pending the completion of an investigation.

“I want those officers fired, and I also want to see a change in ... how they respond to mental health victims,” said Pope, who said her daughter is coping with what happened.

Pope’s attorney has filed a notice of claim with the city, the first legal step in New York toward filing a lawsuit against a government entity. The claim cites negligence, violations of constitutional rights, excessive force, false imprisonment and infliction of emotional distress.

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“We are willing to sit down with the city leaders and to discuss a resolution of this matter,” attorney Lorenzo Napolitano said, “and more importantly, to discuss changes that are needed.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James last year empaneled a grand jury to investigate the actions of Rochester police officers following the death of Prude, who was having a psychological crisis when he was fatally injured.

“There’s many parallels to this case where there was an individual suffering from a mental health crisis and the RPD’s response was far below any degree of compassion or professionalism that we expect from our police department,” Napolitano said.

’We don’t expect police officers to respond to be trained psychologists,” he said, “but all we wanted is for common sense to prevail, and in these situations we want proper procedures in place that the officers could summon mental health resources, and they could have in this case.”

A city spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. Mayor Lovely Warren on Monday condemned the incident and ordered the officers suspended.

“What happened Friday was simply horrible, and has rightly outraged, all of our community,” she said.

Rochester police union President Mike Mazzeo said the officers followed protocol and should not be punished.

“This is not about lack of compassion or empathy,” Mazzeo said during a news conference Sunday. “We’re dealing with a very difficult situation and what officers are confronted and face and the limited resources that are out there.”