On January 29, 2021, Rochester, New York police handcuffed, assaulted, and shot pepper spray into the face of a nine-year-old African-American girl. Video footage from police body cameras is chilling. According to news reports, police were responding to a report of a stolen car, and the child’s parents were arguing when police arrived. When the child’s mother recognized that her daughter had become emotionally distraught over the conflict, she asked police to call for mental health services, which police refused to do. She said police instead threatened her with arrest, then restrained and assaulted her daughter.
The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) strongly condemns these police actions. Hundreds of people with disabilities are harmed or killed every year in similar interactions with police, especially people of color with disabilities. NDRN encourages local jurisdictions to develop and utilize emergency systems that can respond to non-emergency calls involving substance use, suicide threats, mental health crises, welfare checks and similar non-criminal events, without police involvement. The use of deadly force is always possible when police are involved, and that threat is magnified if the person in distress is a person with a disability and/or a person of color.
Just one week prior to this police assault, on January 21, 2021, the City of Rochester had announced the launch of its People in Crisis (PIC) program, employing a corps of social workers trained to respond to “mental health, substance abuse or similar calls that would otherwise be fielded by police.” “Beginning today, when calls are received, as long as there are no weapons or injuries, or no crime has been committed, our PIC team will be dispatched to the scene, rather than police officers or ambulances,” said Mayor Lovely Warren. The PIC was created in response the killing of Daniel Prude, a Black man with a disability, by Rochester police in October 2020, in consultation with the Eugene, Oregon-based program, CAHOOTS.
Unfortunately for this young child, and despite the absence of a criminal complaint or any weapons or injuries, police refused to utilize the mechanism city officials had created for this very situation. As NDRN Executive Director Curt Decker asked, “What’s the point of bringing in expert consultation and creating a real alternative to police intervention if residents cannot benefit from it?”
While NDRN commends the City of Rochester for developing the PIC program, this reform is only useful if it is widely available and utilized. The refusal of police to call in the PIC while brutalizing a child in emotional distress, demands full accountability. The failure of local officials to effectively implement the PIC program endangers all Rochester residents, but especially Rochester residents with a disability.
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The National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) is the nonprofit membership organization for the federally mandated Protection and Advocacy (P&A) Systems and the Client Assistance Programs (CAP) for individuals with disabilities. Collectively, the P&A/CAP Network is the largest provider of legally based advocacy services to people with disabilities in the United States.