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Rochester mother of 9-year-old who was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed notifies city she intends to sue

The mother of a 9-year-old girl who was pepper-sprayed and handcuffed by Rochester police officers last month has notified the city and police department she intends to sue, CNN has learned.

A notice of claim states that the girl’s mother, Elba Pope, will seek damages due to “mental anguish and psychological/emotional distress and trauma” and “physical injury and substantial pain,” as well as coverage for any future required medical treatment and mental health care.

Pope’s daughter ran out of the house in distress because she “was upset about her mother and step-father arguing,” the notice, which CNN obtained from family attorney Lorenzo Napolitano, says.

Pope explicitly accused the officers of “wanton, reckless and malicious” conduct and is claiming “negligence, violation of state and federal constitutional rights, infliction of emotional distress, assault, battery, excessive force, false arrest, (and) false imprisonment,” though she did not limit the scope of the claim to those allegations, the notice says.

Before a person files a lawsuit for damages against a city, New York law requires the plaintiff to prepare and serve a formal notice explaining the nature of the claim.

Pope claims in the notice that she tried to bring her daughter home, but that police “intervened and stopped” her. The notice states that police didn’t tell Pope about the officers’ use of pepper spray and handcuffing or the struggle her daughter had with police officers that was recorded by police body cameras.

“No 9-year-old should be handcuffed. No 9-year-old should be pepper-sprayed. No one’s humanity should be dismissed because of a badge. No human should be treated like this,” Napolitano said in a statement. “Reform is needed. Reform can come, but only if we are willing to listen to this little girl crying out for the protection that she didn’t receive from the Rochester Police.”

One officer involved has been suspended and two were placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal investigation, a Tuesday statement from Rochester Chief of Police Cynthia Herriott-Sullivan said. Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren condemned the incident on Monday, calling it “simply horrible.”

CNN has reached out to the Rochester Police Department and the mayor for comment on the notice of claim.

Family trouble call

The officers responded to what police called a report of “family trouble” and the ensuing encounter has been sharply criticized by city and state officials. The incident has led to protests in the community.

Two body camera videos of the January 29 encounter show officers restraining the child, putting her in handcuffs and attempting to get her inside the back of a police vehicle as she repeatedly cries and calls for her father.

At one point, one officer says, “You’re acting like a child.”

“I am a child!” the girl responds.

A female officer is seen talking to the girl later in the video, eventually saying, “This is your last chance, otherwise pepper spray’s going in your eyeballs.” About a minute later, another officer can be heard saying, “Just spray her at this point.” The female officer is seen shaking a can that appears to be pepper spray and the child continues to scream.

The girl was transported to Rochester General Hospital and later released, according to police.

The incident has been compared to the death of Daniel Prude, a Black man who died in March after Rochester police pinned him to the ground and placed a hood over his head as he experienced a mental health crisis.

The police body camera footage of that incident, released in August after city officials intentionally delayed its release, led to protests over the police’s treatment of Black people and those experiencing mental health crises. Warren later fired the police chief, saying there was a “pervasive problem” in the police department.

At a news conference Sunday, Herriott-Sullivan said the treatment of the girl was not acceptable.

“I’m not going to stand here and tell you that for a 9-year-old to have to be pepper-sprayed is OK. It’s not,” she said. “I don’t see that as who we are as a department, and we’re going to do the work we have to do to ensure that these kinds of things don’t happen.”

Warren said the girl reminded her of her own young daughter.

Monday, New York state Sen. Samra Brouk and Assemblyman Demond Meeks, both Democrats, introduced legislation that would prohibit police use of chemical agents against minors in the state, according to a statement.

“The harrowing experience endured by a nine-year-old girl in our community — including being handcuffed and pepper sprayed — should never happen to another child,” Brouk said in a statement. “This legislation will ensure that when a child is in crisis, they will never again be met with such violence in the form of pepper spray or other chemical irritants.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James tweeted Monday that her office is looking into the incident as well. She called the incident “deeply disturbing and wholly unacceptable.”

Police have not identified the officers involved in the incident or the child.

CNN has not been able to verify with authorities or family members the race of the 9-year-old.

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