Handcuffs and pepper spray for a 9-year-old? What would you have done?


What would you have done?

               IfFriday afternoon, on Avenue B, you had been one of the cops struggling with that troubled child.

               What would you have done?

               It sounds bad, spun on the evening news, with the edited video and the harsh words – “handcuffed” and “chemical irritant” – and it sounds like a new bite of last year’s bitter apple.

               But, really, what would you have done?

               That’s not asked defensively, or antagonistically, but plaintively, earnestly. What would you have done, and what would you have the police do?

               The call came in as a possible stolen vehicle, and a family problem, and presented at the door as a 9-year-old girl who had threatened to hurt others and kill herself, and who was trying to run away. She was physically combative, emotionally distraught, and her family asked police to do something.

               Something.

               What the hell is "something?" And how do you do it?

               The city, after the death of Daniel Prude, changed and, it hopes, improved its response regimen for people who are out of control – “people in crisis” is the phrase. Folks who may be having a mental health crisis or high on drugs or with a mental handicap. People who may be physically resistant and non-cooperative, but who may not be criminal or motivated by bad intent.

               This call didn’t meet the criteria for the PIC unit to be dispatched, and the city hasn’t yet created a protocol for dual dispatch for its new unit. Meaning that, if the police have already been sent, there isn’t a mechanism yet approved by City Hall that allows the PIC unit to also be sent out.

               So there you are, a cop, out in the cold, and the family wants you to take this disorderly young person to the hospital for evaluation and, hopefully, help. And the child struggles and resists.

               She won’t get in the car, she tries to pull away and run.

               A girl who has told her family she wants to run away and kill herself.

               She drops to the ground and is covered in snow, she kicks at you, she tries to pull her hands away and it takes two cops to keep her from running off.

And it’s 15 degrees out.

What do you do?

               You handcuff her and put her in the police car.

               Because that’s what city policy says to do, that’s what your training taught you to do, and that’s what is the safest for the child and others.

               Control the violent flailing of her arms by handcuffing her, and put her in the car before she gets frostbite or hypothermia.

               That’s what you do. On paper. But on the street, how do you actually do it?

               If she won’t cooperate. If her emotional state is such that she is distraught and combative, what do you do?

               You can’t walk away, you can’t offer her a lollypop, you can’t let her stay where she is, out in the bitter cold.

               You have to get her in the car.

               And that’s where the video kicks in. Released in a timely fashion by City Hall, it shows the several-minute effort by police to get the girl in the backseat of the police car. Persuasion and pleading don’t work, and she is directed into the door mostly through low-level physical force. But the girl’s legs won’t go in without her cooperation, and she is not providing it.

               Maybe she’s afraid, maybe she’s angry, maybe she’s in an altered mental state.

               The "why" isn’t known, but the "what" is.

               She won’t put her legs in the car.

               In the verbal exchange, she calls out for a female office. One immediately responds.

               And the body cam footage shows that a lot of others did as well. At least six blue and whites are shown on video, with several officers standing near the car.

               All of them must realize they could be watching the death of their careers.

               This is one of those sick situations destined for the6 o’clocknews. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. The only certainty is that the cops are going to be the bad guys. And when you’ve got a family at home to feed and this is your chosen career and you get out of your car and see this unfolding, well, it’s a bad day for everyone.

               The female officer takes a tack most would support.

               She is soothing, she promises to find the girl’s father – as she was requesting – and she uses words of endearment. She tries to calm the girl, explain to her what’s happening, and encourage her cooperation.

               But it doesn’t work.

               The girl does not cooperate. She will not slide into the car. She is still in the cold winter air.

               And that leads to the next step in the officers’ training relative to compliance. Chemical irritant. A quick spray in the eyes.

               It sounds cruel. It sounds like torture.

               But it is state and city policy, and it is what officers are trained to do. It is the next level. It is required of them by policy.

               And the officers explain that to the girl. They threaten her. They explain the consequence of continued resistance.

               But she doesn’t relent.

               And she gets the quick spray in the eyes.

               And it works.

               She pivots into the car and the doors are closed and she is where the police and her family wanted her – safe and warm in the back of a police car.

               The thing the police were trained to do worked.

               Is it pretty? Of course not. It is heartbreaking. It is sickening. Every bit of it. You can’t watch the video without feeling great sadness for a 9-year-old girl who wants to kill herself, who finds herself in this situation, who endures this.

               It’s all bad.

               But that doesn’t make the police wrong. They did what their duty and training required them to do. They did what the girl’s family wanted them to do. They were assigned a task, and they accomplished that task.

               They got the girl to the hospital, and they got her the help her family asked them to get her.

               And many ask if there wasn’t a better way.

               Which gets back to the question: What would you do?

               Seriously. As the police union asks for a better policy, as the Police Accountability Board wants to know what the training is, as the mayor says we can do better – what is better? What are the options? How else could this have been handled?

               If you were the officers there, what would you have done?

               That’s not an excuse, it’s a plea.