The pepper-spraying and handcuffing of a 9-year-old Black girl suffering a mental health crisis by police in Rochester, New York has become national news. The Washington Post’s editorial board asked, perhaps provocatively, how can it “require a state law to make clear that it is not acceptable to pepper-spray children?” New York’s Daily News offered a response, “[w]hen a 9-year-old is cuffed and casually pepper-sprayed, it must be a clarion call for change. Mental health first responders can no longer be afterthoughts. This is no longer about pilot programs or experiments. Put them at the center of our response to people in crisis. Enough. Enough. Enough.”
The use of chemical agents like pepper spray or tear gas poses immediate and significant physical harm and trauma to children, which is why New York’s rules prohibit their use on children in state facilities. Indeed, when correction officers in New York City petitioned to use pepper spray on adolescents in juvenile detention facilities, CDF-NY and other advocates opposed it and the state held its ground. Now, state lawmakers here in New York are advancing legislation to make the same rules apply in our neighborhoods and communities. The rationale is clear to anyone who saw the bodycam footage from Rochester. It is not acceptable to pepper-spray children.
This legislation is especially critical to protecting the lives of Black children. Research has consistently shown that Black boys are more likely to be viewed by police as older, “less innocent,” more threatening, and thus more likely to face a use of force – like pepper spray – by police. There is similar research around Black girls’ vulnerability to dehumanizing police response. Our advocacy to end the use of pepper spray against children is a critical part of a larger project to address the disparate treatment of Black children in policing by pushing back against the common practice of treating children of color as though they are adults.
More reforms are necessary. CDF-NY is working to advance legislation in the state legislature that would limit police contact with children in crisis, increase access to rapid response mental health services and community based supports, and stop unnecessary court-involvement. This includes legislation that would de-center police from family crisis, and require communities to develop mental health crisis response. We also support legislation to establish a taskforce focused on the mental health needs of Black youth in particular, because Black and Latinx children have the highest rates of adolescent suicide attempts, and suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among youth 15 to 19 in New York. Over half of children in New York with a mental or behavioral condition did not receive treatment when they needed it.
We are also working to end the arrest and prosecution of children as young as seven years old, and instead, provide linkages to local community-based services through existing child welfare and behavioral health systems. While the little girl in Rochester was not arrested, she was placed in police custody. The majority of children who have contact with the justice system have significant mental health needs. The juvenile justice system serves as an apparatus for the delivery of mental health services for vulnerable youth whose families lack access those services in their communities. The youngest children that police arrest are significantly more likely to be children of color. In 2019, 94 percent of all children under 12 who were arrested in New York City were Black, Latinx or Asian.
We are hopeful that New York will ban the use of pepper spray against children. Unfortunately, we do need a state law to do that. But we also need a deeper commitment to the well-being of children in our communities, and to build our capacity separate and apart from policing, to respond to their needs, and keep them safe.