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Black girls are often perceived and treated like adults during police encounters, say experts

A 2017 study found that Black girls risk facing restraint at a rate two times higher than White girls and face the risk of arrest at a rate nearly four times higher than their White peers.

Black girls are often perceived and treated like adults during police encounters, say experts
Cover Image Source: YouTube/Rochester NY Police

Rochester police recently drew harsh criticism from city officials and lawmakers for using excessive force on a 9-year-old Black girl while responding to a report of "family trouble." Body camera footage released by the police department earlier this month shows the officers handcuffing and pepper-spraying the child and attempting to get her inside the back of a police vehicle while she repeatedly cries and calls for her father. At one point during the January 29 incident, one officer is heard saying: "You're acting like a child," to which the girl responds: "I am a child!"

 



 

 

This exchange more or less sums up an often overlooked issue in the conversation about police brutality towards the Black community: the "adultification bias" of young Black girls. According to CNN, researchers and advocates say that Black girls are often perceived and treated like adults — a perception that dehumanizes them and makes them targets of harsh treatment by police and severe disciplinary action at school. A 2017 study conducted by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that "adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their White peers, especially in the age range of 5–14."

 



 

 

"We're not even seen as children," said Monica Raye Simpson, executive director of SisterSong, an organization that advocates for reproductive justice for women of color. "We are seen as Black people who, to them, read as threats." Simpson cited her own experience of being pepper-sprayed by police at the age of 11 after cops chased a group of young adults onto her porch. Disregarding the presence of a child, the officers sprayed everyone in sight. This isn't the first time Rochester police has come under fire for mistreating a young Black girl. Calls arose for changes to RPD procedures in the use of restraints on minors after 10-year-old girl Na'ilah Bey was placed in handcuffs by Rochester police during a traffic stop in May 2020.

 



 

 

Shalonda Jones, a member of the Rochester-based Community Justice Initiative, is now lobbying to get Na'ilah's Law — a city law that would prevent children from being handcuffed and require social services or child welfare to be present for police calls that involve children — passed in honor of the young girl. Jones believes the police are not properly equipped to handle a child who is experiencing a mental illness or breakdown. "In both incidents, the police officers were beyond aggressive," she said. "They have no remorse; they have no sympathy for the fact that it's a child. It seems as if they are being trained to just attack Black and brown girls and boys."

 



 

 

"We see Black women and girls invisiblized in the conversation of police violence," said Beatriz Beckford, national director of youth and education justice for MomsRising, a group that advocates for women, mothers, and families. "And we don't see the same amount of outpouring or outcrying of disgust when it comes to little Black girls and Black women." She added that police often associate being Black with criminality or guilt and that Black girls are not exempt from this stereotype despite their young age. While there have been several reports and videos of Black girls as young as age six being manhandled, body slammed, and aggressively restrained by police officers, advocates say the cops rarely face disciplinary action.

 



 

 

Organizations such as the African American Policy Forum have spent years calling attention to police violence against Black women and girls. The #SayHerName campaign was launched in 2014 as a part of the AAPF's efforts to raise awareness of what the organization calls the "invisible names and stories" of Black women and girls who have been victims of police brutality. "Black women and girls as young as 7 and as old as 93 have been killed by the police, though we rarely hear their names," AAPF says on its website. "Knowing their names is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for lifting up their stories which in turn provides a much clearer view of the wide-ranging circumstances that make Black women's bodies disproportionately subject to police violence. To lift up their stories, and illuminate police violence against Black women, we need to know who they are, how they lived, and why they suffered at the hands of police."

 



 

 

The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality study found that Black girls risk facing restraint at a rate two times higher than White girls and face the risk of arrest at a rate nearly four times higher than their White peers. Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, said that this disparity is partly due to young Black girls being burdened with the same stereotypes that adult Black women face. "This is happening on a scale that is unacceptable and it indicates that this is not about a few bad apples," Epstein said. "But it's a systemic problem that is rooted in racism, rooted in developmentally inappropriate approaches to children that needs to be fixed."

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