Md. girl pepper sprayed; Chicago students react

The Associated Press report that police in Hagerstown, Maryland, handcuffed and pepper sprayed a 15-year-old girl in September after her bicycle hit a moving car made it all the way to Whitney Young High School in Chicago, The Beacon reports.

The student newspaper writes, in an op-ed entitled “The Fallacy of Those Who Serve and Protect,” that students at the school believe police handled the situation badly. The biracial girl, who was charged as a juvenile with a traffic violation, possession of marijuana, and other violations, was pepper sprayed after being put into a police car—while still handcuffed.

Hagerstown Police Chief Victor Brito defended the actions of his police officers, denying that officers had failed to deescalate the situation. A bystander’s video, however, shows an officer swinging the girl around toward a wall by her handcuffed arm and, shortly after that, the girl’s face pressed against the wall.

“When I look at that girl, I see myself,” the student newspaper quotes a junior at Whitney Young as saying. “She was young and active and small, but she didn’t look threatening. There was absolutely no reason for them to handle her the way they did or pepper spray her, especially when she was already in the car and unable to harm anyone.

“It just makes me weary of the police even in a place like Chicago. You never know who’ll get the good cop or bad cop,” she said.

This police action stirred a strong call for better police training:

A concern of police misconduct has led many people to think that officers are not given the sensitivity training needed. Police officers aren’t trained to deescalate things but to disarm and neutralize a threat. This leaves room for interpretation of the officer in every situation. This interpretation can be affected by the events of an officer’s day, which is why more protocol and training needs to be put into place.

Incidents like this, especially when chiefs of police try to defend indefensible actions, have caused communities across America to lose confidence in their police departments. People don’t trust cops anymore.

And “when trust is broken, everyone loses,” writes Michael Friedman, PhD, in Psychology Today. Citing polls that show most Americans don’t believe police are held accountable for their actions, he says the level of distrust these students write about leads to unequal communities in which some people feel protected by the police and others feel suspicious.

Perceived legitimacy of police is crucial to effective policing

As the level of trust community members have in the police goes down, the threat to the safety and security of those communities goes up. And law enforcement officers become less able to investigate or prevent crimes when community members lose trust in police.

Furthermore, Dr Friedman adds, differences between the level of trust minority communities and non-minority communities have in police are common because (a) minorities have more negative experiences with police and (b) minorities are more frequently incarcerated or subject to treatments like the handcuffing or pepper spraying reported in Hagerstown.

In addition to the sensitivity training students recommend, Dr Friedman suggests increasing the transparency of police departments. “There is a compelling need for more communication between law enforcement agencies and community organizations. This type of approach includes regular meetings with community leaders and law enforcement,” he writes.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.