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When the ‘Person in Crisis’ is a child

12 February 2021 |

Reflections from James Ross, a parent and former assistant professor in SUNY’s criminal justice program, following the recent pepper-spraying of a nine-year-old Rochester child.

I originally wrote this blog the day after the incident on January 31. With a few weeks’ distance, my conviction that the situation was mishandled and that we need to examine how law enforcement handles mental health cases has only intensified. Although Rochester has recently established a “Person in Crisis” program, this program was not used in the January 31 incident. Statements indicate that the report that triggered law enforcement intervention of a “family problem” or what is commonly referred to by law enforcement as a “domestic” referenced a possibly stolen vehicle. This was seemingly erroneous.
The following law enforcement reaction highlights the extreme disconnect that law enforcement, indeed the legal system, has regarding both child development and mental health. As an attorney who has spent nearly two decades representing children within the NYS Unified Court system this incident, sadly, does not astound me. As an individual who spent 15 years teaching as an assistant professor in SUNY criminal justice programs, I know I should shoulder some blame for not advancing more sociological, social-psychological, child development, or mental health content in the criminal justice curriculum. Majors in criminal justice usually have only a minimum requirement of one course in juvenile delinquency (which very often does not contain any significant amount of child development content). This however does not excuse the on-scene decision-making by the nine officers that responded to this call, including a supervisor.
The result of this encounter was a failing of situational judgment on the part of the officers. While I am not privy to current RPD operating procedures, I am not familiar with any previous official documentation that states that after an adult, let alone a child, in police custody is non-compliant that there is a “requirement” that officers spray an “irritant” in their face as was stated in the official release from RPD after the incident. This situation emphasizes several issues: the use and application of force; the qualified immunity for law enforcement responding to an individual in a mental health crisis (See Mental Hygiene Law - MHY § 9.59 Immunity from liability); a lack of knowledge and training required and the continuing education for law enforcement officers regarding mental health and child development; and lastly, a lack of willingness to step back, reevaluate the necessary response to the evolving situation, and call in the newly formed “Person in Crisis” unit.
As a citizen and father of a tween who suffers from mental health issues, who has had periodic bouts of suicidal ideations, this predisposition for law enforcement to utilize force is a need that must be addressed.


–James J. Ross, J.D., Ph.D.
AmeriCorps Fellow, Whole Child Connection

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