9-year-old girl pepper-sprayed by Rochester police was latest child of color 'adultified' by authorities. Here's why that's so dangerous.

·8 min read
People protest after police handcuffed and sprayed a chemical irritant at a nine-year-old girl in Rochester, New York, U.S., February 1, 2021.  REUTERS/Lindsay DeDario
People protest after police handcuffed and sprayed a chemical irritant at a 9-year-old girl in Rochester, N.Y., on Feb. 1. (Lindsay DeDario/Reuters)

When news of a 9-year-old Rochester girl being pepper-sprayed by police made headlines earlier this month — and again late last week, as newly released footage showed cops scolding the girl — it prompted many to speak out once again against police brutality, with the girl's mom, Elba Pope, saying she's preparing to file a lawsuit against the police department.

But one exchange from the incident — of cops telling the girl to "stop acting like a child," and her responding, "I am a child!" — has sparked a particular brand of outrage across the country: It’s reinvigorated the discussion about how children of color, like the unidentified girl, are so often seen as adults by white authority figures — and how that perception has proven again and again to be a matter of life and death.

“The fact that this officer couldn't hear and process her say, ‘I am a child’ is a big problem,” Tracie Keesee, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, tells Yahoo Life. She explains that the young girl was not only a victim of police brutality, but also what's known as adultification bias — a form of prejudice that assumes Black children are older than they are, causing “teachers, parents and law enforcement [to be] less protective and more punitive with certain kids.”

Kessee, a 25-year Denver Police Department and 4-year New York Police Department vet, adds, “Race is a factor in adultification. It’s the same thing that happens with young Black boys and reinforces that Black girls are less innocent."

The recent Rochester incident is just the latest such example. Just last month, a school resource officer in Florida body-slammed a Black high school girl onto concrete, causing her to lose consciousness — a scene reminiscent of those that have gone viral many times before. In a 2017 study, University of Florida law professor Michelle S. Jacobs examined instances in which Black girls are attacked by officers called in to assist them, noting that the use of social media has brought more awareness to the issue.

In her study, Jacobs recalled, “In McKinney, Texas, in the summer of 2015, white officers were filmed answering a call about noise at a pool party. … One officer is seen throwing a Black teenage girl, wearing only a bikini, to the ground and places his knee in her back while handcuffing her. The same officer pulled out his loaded service revolver and pointed it at the other Black girls who were guests at the party.

Diallo Payne marches to a small protest outside Rochester Police Locust Club in Rochester, February 3, 2021. On January 29, a Rochester police officer sprayed an irritant into the face of a 9-year-old girl who was sitting in the back of a squad car. (Photo by Libby March/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
“The fact that this officer couldn't hear and process her say, ‘I am a child’ is a big problem," says one activist. Here, a woman is seen protesting in Rochester on Feb. 3 after police pepper-sprayed a 9-year-old girl. (Photo: Libby March/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the fall of 2016, she continues, Washington, D.C., police arrested an 18-year-old girl by knocking her to ground and handcuffing her because, in part, "she talked back to them." That same year, the police in Hagerstown, Md., pepper-sprayed and handcuffed a 15-year-old Black girl, Jacobs recounts, along with "the story out of Brooklyn, where the police actually shoved a teenage Black girl through the plate glass window of a store. … When the officer involved threw one Black girl to the ground and repeatedly slammed her face into the floor, her friend came to help her. In response, the police shoved her through the plate glass window.”

As Jacobs explained, “Not only do stereotypes about Black female behavior factor in here, but it may also be possible that the girls are triggering [a] masculinity threat or legitimacy threat in the officers.”

Other researchers have looked at this phenomenon: In 2017, one groundbreaking study found that adults perceive Black girls “as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers, especially in the age range of 5–14,” and that many believed Black girls required less nurturing, protection, comfort and support.

A 2014 study found that both college students and police officers were “far more likely to overestimate the ages of young Black boys than young white boys; they were also less likely to view Black children as innocent.” Further, this research showed that the biases of participants had been reinforced with the subconscious dehumanization of Black children — which also coincided with the amount of force used against them.

The study’s author, Yale professor Phillip Atiba Goff, CEO of the Center for Police Equity, explained in a 2014 post for the American Psychological Association that although "children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection … Black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."

The effects of adultification on children of color

Since the Rochester incident, Elba Pope has been publicly advocating for her child, explaining that she is traumatized and now afraid of any police officer she sees. Speaking with News10 NBC, Pope revealed that she had plans to sue the city in a bid to “force reforms for police and in how mental health crises are handled.”

“To defend my daughter, and to possibly help future kids or anyone with mental health, I am absolutely ready to take this to court,” said Pope. “They need to change the system. It needs to be better. … I trusted [the Rochester Police Department], and they horribly let me down. They let society down. They let anybody with any type of mental issues down.” In response, New York state introduced legislation to ban police officers from using pepper spray on children — but historically, the consequences of adultification bias have gone even further than the use of a chemical irritant, sometimes resulting in death.

In 2016, ACLU Ohio policy director Shakyra Diaz wrote, “Today state violence against Black children is expressed through disproportionate school suspensions, arrests, charges, adjudications, bind-overs to adult prisons and deadly force at the hands of police for similar behaviors as their white peers. Like many Black children robbed of their childhood," she continued, "Tamir Rice was a victim of racialized adultification. One of the six men who killed Emmitt Till said, 'He looked like a man.' Mike Brown was compared to "Hulk Hogan," and Travyon Martin was portrayed as a monster by media, all of which, in each of the cases mentioned, resulted in public justification for their murders.

Keesee further explains that the way the Rochester officers responded to the 9-year-old connects directly to ongoing calls from some activists to defund police. She explains, “These patterns that we keep seeing around how we police in Black communities versus others is the reason why abolishment and defunding is discussed. If there's no other tools for that particular officer, then perhaps you don't need to have that officer responding — but money needs to go to another group of people who can respond in a more appropriate fashion.”

Further, Keesee adds that while part of the national conversation around police brutality focuses on having more Black officers on forces, it's not necessarily a realistic solution. “I say, ‘Where are you going to get them from?’ Because I can tell you, with the constant interactions and conversations around [policing of Black communities], why on earth would I want my child to wear that uniform?”

Adultification bias beyond the police

It's not only through the eyes of law enforcement that Black and brown children are seen as menacing and are thus more endangered. School authority figures also top the list. In response, and to facilitate the creation of safer environments for Black children (specifically Black girls), organizations like the Education Trust and EveryBlackGirl continue to advocate for and rally behind policy reforms that will account for the implicit biases of white authoritarians. However, despite their best efforts, the damage cannot be undone for many children.

“She will carry that with her. She will never forget that she was Maced by the police," Keesee says of the Rochester girl. "In fact, they were aware of her [prior to this incident] and she had been in handcuffs before — that’s even more problematic. Trauma is trauma — but it's even more traumatizing when it's … [from] someone who's supposed to be helping you. This is about the adultification of this child and protecting what we know is childhood."

Finally, the responding Rochester officers, through their actions, have "compounded the mental health issues," she adds. "So that includes not just whatever the original crisis is, but it's [also] the [new] trauma being made. … Now you've been manhandled and injured, so you start equating that injury with getting help. How do you begin to process that and the overall effects that it has on the body and the mind? All of those things will have lasting effects. Period.”

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