Imagine your nine-year-old daughter handcuffed in the back seat of a police car.  Now imagine she was having a mental crisis and was pepper-sprayed by officers called to the scene for assistance, while confined in the back seat of the police cruiser, hands cuffed behind her back.


On Friday afternoon, January 29, 2021, nine police officers from the Rochester, New York Police Department responded to a domestic mental health crisis call that a nine-year-old girl was threatening to harm herself and her mother.


Child Pepper-Sprayed by Police Officer


What ensued from the police response to that call has triggered national and international outrage and criticism. A viral video, and a later released police body camera video, show officers trying to control the distraught handcuffed girl as she resisted officers’ commands and cried out for her dad. In response to the child’s behavior, one of the officers fired pepper spray into the nine-year-old’s face. She was taken to a local hospital, treated, and released to the care of her mother.


Child Body-Slammed by Police Officer


On January 26, 2021, a resource officer at Liberty High School in Kissimmee, Florida, body-slammed a 16-year-old Black female student to the ground. This horrific assault was also captured on video. The sound of the teenage girl’s head hitting the concrete floor was audible on the widely shared video. The officer then handcuffed the unconscious teenager and did not render aid to her.


In both incidents, the officers employing excessive force are white, and the two victims are young Black girls.


Given the well-documented history of systemic racism in policing across the country, we must, again, ask the initial question: would the officers have used the same level of excessive force—pepper-spraying a nine-year-old and body-slamming a 16-year-old—had the victims been white?


The only rational answer to this question is an emphatic “no.”


“I am a Child!”


Both of these victims are Black children-emotionally, intellectually, and physically. In both cases, the responding police officers are White adults. During the January 29 pepper spray incident, the video captured the police officers telling the Black girl, “you’re acting like a child,” to which the child rightfully responded, “I am a child.”


These two law enforcement incidents mirror a much larger problem that lies not only in the eyes of white police officers but also in our general society: the “adultification bias” toward Black children.


In a February 3, 2021 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown University Law Center, and Toella Pliakas, a senior at Georgetown University, said, “the police must see Black girls as the children they are.” Speaking directly to the pepper spray incident, Epstein and Pliakas wrote that:


“For an officer to look at a 9-year-old girl and fail to see her as a child is, sadly, consistent with our research, which has shown that adults view Black girls as young as age 5 as less innocent and more like adults than White girls of the same age, and needing less protection and nurturing. Scholars and researchers say the perspective is based on stereotypes of Black women as threatening and aggressive, which are projected onto Black girls. This difference in perception, this blindness to the innocence of a Black child, is not just unfeeling. It is rooted in dehumanization.”


Adultification Bias 


At the core of this routine “dehumanization” of Black girls by white police officers is a social reflection of the historical systemic racism in how law enforcement responds to Black communities. It is important to understand that the damage of excessive police force on Black girls, both mental and physical, is traumatic and everlasting. Epstein and Pliakas explained:


“The consequences of such adultification biases are profound. Rather than showing Black girls leniency or compassion in keeping with their age, authorities punish them in ways that are wholly out of proportion to their developmental stage. This occurs in many of our public systems, including schools, where young people spend the majority of their time. Our analysis data from the U.S. Education Department, conducted in partnership with researches at New York’s University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, showed that, accounting for their enrollment, in the 2017-2018 school year Black girls ran more than twice the risk as Black girls of being placed in physical restraints; they had three times the risk of being referred to law enforcement by their schools; and 3.66 times the risk of being arrested in school.”


The pepper spray incident begs additional illustration. Law enforcement excessive force policies generally authorize the use of pepper spray called “OC” (Oleoresin Capsicum) in the following situations:


  • Against subjects who are actively resisting in a manner that, in the officer’s judgment, is likely to result in injuries to themselves or others;
  • To incapacitate a subject who poses a threat of imminent physical injury to himself/herself;
  • During a physical confrontation with a combative individual and attempts to control the subject by lower levels of force or tactics are ineffective;
  • Against aggressive or dangerous animals that pose a threat of physical injury to officers or others;
  • Prisoners/subjects attempting destruction to police property or personal property;
  • Prisoners/subjects attempting to harm police or other persons;
  • Prisoners restrained with physical bonds who are out of control and violent; and
  • Prisoners acting violently in cellblock areas.


None of these situations justify the use of pepper spray against an unruly nine-year-old girl surrounded by a total of nine adult police officers. What kind of threat could a handcuffed nine-year-old pose to nine trained police officers?


The medical evidence is overwhelming that there is long term damaging physical and psychological impact caused by pepper spray against children. Purvi S. Parikh, an immunologist who specializes in pediatric health at New York University Langone Health, has spoken to this evidence:


“Any chemicals in your eyes, nose or lungs isn’t good, but it’s especially worrisome for kids because their organs are still developing. It has the potential of causing long-term effects.”


Parikh added that pepper spray against a child could induce “neurological effects, such as nerve or brain damage” or create lung problems such as asthma because OC enters the upper respiratory tract.


Children Exposed to Police Violence


Rohini Harr, an emergency physician who specializes in health and human rights and who is a professor at the University of California Berkeley, added to the discussion that the impact on a child’s mental health after being pepper-sprayed “cannot be overstated.”


“Children who are exposed to violence, especially violence on behalf of law enforcement, that has an incredibly chilling effect on that relationship,” Harr told North Carolina Health News this past November. “It has an incredibly traumatizing effect on children in general to experience violence at young ages.”


Legislation Needed to Regulate the Obvious


New York state lawmakers have responded to the Rochester incident by introducing legislation that would prohibit the use of pepper spray on minors “under any circumstances.”


We would urge Texas lawmakers to undertake the same kind of legislation that would ban any use of pepper spray against minors. We strongly urge that such legislation include a requirement that police, including school resource officers, undergo “adultification bias” training dealing with children of color, especially before they could be assigned to Texas schools.


There was simply no legitimate law enforcement need for police officers to pepper-spray the nine-year-old or to body slam a teenager to the concrete floor. None.  


Legislation, training, and accountability are the only ways to prevent these horrific incidents from happening in Texas in the future.