Mom of 9-Year-Old Handcuffed, Pepper-Sprayed by Rochester Police Speaks Out

Elba Probe says her 9-year-old daughter should never have been handcuffed and pepper-sprayed by Rochester, New York, officers responding to a call about a stolen vehicle.

The mother of a 9-year-old girl who was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by Rochester police is condemning the department after filing a claim with the city alleging false imprisonment and excessive force.

The action, called a notice of claim, is the first legal step toward suing the city in New York State, which Elba Pope, the child's mother, says she intends to do.

“I definitely want to see a change in the system,” Pope told NBC News. “I trusted the Rochester Police Department to do what they needed to do to help my daughter, not to abuse her or hurt her at all.”

The incident occurred Jan. 29. Earlier this week, the city released body cam videos, which showed the distraught girl sobbing and screaming for her dad as officers grapple with her, at one point pushing her into the snow as they try to handcuff her.

In an interview Tuesday with WHEC-TV, Pope said she called the police after her ex-boyfriend sped away with her car. When officers arrived, her daughter became upset and ran off, and she told police the girl had previously experienced emotional problems, the mother said.

In the body cam videos, an officer can be seen chasing the girl down a snowy street, yelling at her to stop and talk to him. 

"And I'm like 'Sir, we need a mental health. I think my daughter is about to have a meltdown,'” the mother said.  “He just disregarded me. Like he didn't care."

At one point in the video, the mother is heard shouting at the child and cursing at her as one officer tries to question the girl. The mother is then told to go back in the house by police, according to the footage.

"Emotions were high, very, very, high,” Pope told the station. “My daughter, she was being very disrespectful. I got a little emotional and maybe, not maybe, I definitely could've spoken in a different manner."

The mother also said she didn't know her daughter had been pepper-sprayed until she saw it in news reports the day after the incident. She said the child had threatened to harm herself and others.

In the bodycam video, officers repeatedly order the child into a police car, but she is seen thrashing and heard continually calling for her father. Authorities said the cops wanted to take the girl to a hospital for a medical and psychological evaluation.

The 9-year-old is heard yelling "I don't want to go," as she grapples with police.

A female officer is seen later talking to the girl, telling her to put her feet in the cruiser as she sits handcuffed on the back seat. "This is your last chance, otherwise pepper spray's going in your eyeballs," the woman is heard saying.

Another officer is heard saying, "Just spray her at this point." After the pepper spray hits, the girl screams and pleads for someone to wipe her eyes.

Both activists and government officials have criticized the encounter as being overly aggressive.

Mayor Lovely Warren, who has a 10-year-old daughter, said, “I can tell you that this video, as a mother, is not anything that you want to see. This is not something that any of us should want to justify, can justify … And it is something we have to change.” 

Police chief Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said Wednesday she is concerned about the incident and that is under internal review.

"I have to be clear, this is not who we are, and I do not want to be the police chief of a department that doesn’t have an issue with pepper spray(ing) a child," she told WHAM-TV.  "Now, having said that, I’ve been clear about that with staff, but at the same time, I understand we’re going to do things wrong," she added.

Three of the officers involved, who have not been identified, have been suspended with pay, she said earlier in the week. 

"What happened in Rochester on Friday is deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable," Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Monday. "Such use of force and pepper spray should never be deployed against a child, period. My office is looking into what transpired and how a child was ever subjected to such danger."

The incident renewed focus on the Rochester Police Department, which received scrutiny last year after Daniel Prude, a Black man, whose family reported he was suffering a psychiatric episode, suffocated after officers put a "spit hood" over his head.

His death occurred last March, but it received little public attention until months later, when his family released bodycam footage of the encounter showing the naked man in a road, his hands cuffed behind him and the hood covering his face. The incident sparked protests and the firing of the police chief, who said he and his officers did nothing wrong.

It is now under state investigation. An autopsy conducted by the coroner's office deemed Prude's death a homicide.

Mike Mazzeo, president of the Rochester Police Locust Club, defended officers involved in last week's incident, telling reporters on Sunday the child "could have been hurt worse."

The union leader said officers considered getting the girl medical help, and into the patrol car, was the best available option at the time. "Had they had to go and push further, and use more force, there's a good chance she could have been hurt worse."

On Thursday, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said she wants to scrap the existing police union contract in favor of changes that would allow officers to be fired immediately for cause, as well as requiring officers to live in the city, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported.

"We have a systematic racism problem in our community that permeates throughout many organizations especially in our Police Department," the mayor wrote in an email outlining her proposed changes, the paper said.