HAGERSTOWN, Md. — On a warm September Sunday in 2016, a small Black teenager in a pink T-shirt biked through narrow city streets and rolled into an intersection. So did a Chevy Cruze, driven by an 85-year-old man heading home from church.
The next thing 15-year-old Brianna Stuart knew, she was lying dazed on the pavement, she said in an interview. The driver alerted 911 about the accident.
Her mom would be so mad at her, she thought. Her parents had warned her never to talk to police without them in this majority-White community — and told her not to bike in this part of town.
She cursed at officers trying to question her and climbed back on her Huffy.
White officers pulled the 100-pound girl off her bike by her backpack straps, a police body camera video shows. As she struggled to get away, they shoved her against a building and locked her wrists into cuffs while she sobbed and cursed and screamed.
“You let that badge go to your head,” a bystander called out.
The police carried the increasingly hysterical teen to a patrol car, but she refused to put her feet inside, the video shows. The police on the scene lost patience.
“I’ll spray her,” one said.
He waved the pepper spray toward her face — then pushed down on the canister. It hissed, twice. Stuart shrieked and cried out, “I can’t breathe!” She continued to wail as the officers milled around outside the car.
The police department said its officers handled the situation correctly. But bystander video — of a kid’s bike accident that escalated out of control — spread on social media.
The incident echoes similar scenes across the country: A 9-year-old girl in Rochester, New York, pepper sprayed as she sat in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car, crying for her dad. A teenage girl at a Texas pool party, wrestled to the ground by an officer. An Iowa teen, pepper sprayed by police as she waited for the bus after school. All were Black.
Black youths make up the majority of kids on the receiving end of police violence — and a striking number of them are girls, an investigation by The Marshall Project found.
There is no comprehensive national database of violent interactions between police and civilians. But when we looked at data for six large police departments that provided detailed demographic information on use-of-force incidents, we found nearly 4,000 youngsters 17 and under experienced police violence from 2015 through 2020.
Almost 800 of the children and teens — roughly a fifth of the total — were Black girls. White girls were involved in about 120 cases, representing only 3% of use-of-force incidents involving minors.
As Black communities are painfully aware, and researchers have detailed, Black boys bear the brunt of police violence against minors. That was true in our data, too. More than 2,200 Black boys were involved in use-of-force incidents in the six cities we examined.
But Black girls also accounted for a significant share of the cases. In New Orleans, every girl in use-of-force data was Black; two-thirds of the girls who live in the city are Black. A spokesman for the police department emphasized that all but one of the incidents “involved lower levels of force (Hands, Takedown, Firearm Pointing, etc.).”
The story was similar in Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Oregon, where girls who experienced force by police were disproportionately and often overwhelmingly Black. Several of these departments declined to comment.
But the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said that Black girls have more frequent contacts with officers, as both suspects and victims of crimes, which may explain why they also experience police force more often than other girls.
“Those numbers are concerning, but the statistics alone present a misleading picture,” said Lt. Shane Foley, spokesman for the Indianapolis police. The department continues “to work towards addressing inequities in the community.”
Portland police said the use-of-force statistics on Black girls are in line with the proportion of Black people arrested in the city.
In Chicago, “sanctity of life is the highest priority” of the police department, a spokesman wrote in a statement.
A 2017 study by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults often see Black girls as older and less innocent than White girls of the same age.
“Our deeply embedded biases about Black children being dangerous applies both to boys and girls, and I think we forget that,” said Kristin Henning, a Georgetown Law professor. “We wouldn’t even think about stopping a White girl in quite the way we stop a Black girl.”
When police use force against civilians, only a small proportion of incidents end with a trip to the emergency room, experts say. Nevertheless, in California, almost 16,000 children and teens went to the hospital after interacting with law enforcement between 2005 and 2017, according to an analysis published in September by researchers from the University of California, Berkeley.
Black girls aged 15 to 19 were four times as likely as White girls to be hurt.
The findings “highlight the ways in which Black girls are uniquely harmed by policing,” according to Kriszta Farkas, one of the study’s authors. “The protections of childhood are not afforded to all children.”
How routine police encounters ended with force
“I thought they were going to shoot all of us.”
Maliyah Clary was driving with a learner’s permit — but without an adult in the car — when officers stopped her in a Detroit suburb. Police ordered her to get out of the vehicle; when she demanded to know why, an officer dragged her from the car, bodycam video shows. Another officer pointed his gun at Clary’s passengers: her 14- and 15-year-old cousins. “I thought they were going to shoot all of us,” the 14-year-old told us. Clary said that an officer kneeled on her and handcuffed her.
The girls said officers ignored their pleas to call their parents. Clary faces charges for traffic violations and resisting arrest. The police department would not comment because of pending litigation.
“She was basically in shock.”
After a fight at a skating rink in a village near Akron, a police officer demanded a 13-year-old girl’s help finding a relative suspected of being involved in the scuffle, according to her family’s lawsuit. The officer handcuffed her and put her in a patrol car. When she complained that it was hot inside, he turned on the car’s heater, the lawsuit said. Her lawyer said the heat was so intense, and she was so frightened, that she fainted. In court, the officer and village officials have denied her allegation about the heat and said she was detained for possessing an unlawful vape pen.
The Lakemore Police Department determined that the officer violated policy and the chief recommended firing him, according to local news reports. But in May, the town’s mayor and village council overruled the department, keeping the officer on the force. Police Chief Roy Smith declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
“They’re all men — handling us like we’re grown men.”
On a steamy summer day, Vanna Allen, 16, and four teenage girlfriends went to a condo complex’s pool in this city near Tampa. They confronted two men they thought were filming them, Allen said in an interview. As the girls walked home, sheriff’s deputies stopped them. Allen said an officer slammed a girl to the ground. Another officer punched Allen in the mouth, and her lip began to bleed, she said. The girls asked to call their parents, but deputies handcuffed and arrested four of them, including three Black girls and Allen, who is White. “We were still in our suits,” Allen said. “We’re all girls, and they’re all men — handling us like we’re grown men.” The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office told local reporters that the teens ignored orders to stop and answer questions, then physically resisted attempts to keep them from leaving. It also said two of the girls hit a deputy during the arrests. The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the incident. Allen said she agreed to participate in a diversion plan, after which charges against her would be dropped.
“They were treating me like an adult.”
DeShaya Reed skipped school and went to the home of her then-boyfriend’s sister. Someone there called police. Reed ran, and two officers chased her, handcuffing her and shoving her into a patrol car, according to her lawsuit. Reed, who said in an interview she was terrified and asking officers to call her mom, stuck her leg out to stop officers from closing the car’s door. Police bodycam video shows an officer hitting Reed on the thigh. The department has said the officer was trying to get the teen to move her leg, and that she kicked her. The department disciplined the two officers, local news reported. The then-police chief declined to comment. A department spokesman also declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The incident was a defining point in her life, Reed said. She never graduated from high school. Instead of trying to become a chef at a fancy restaurant, she said, she’s flipping burgers at Wendy’s and Five Guys.
“They were so aggressive against me.”
A clerk at a dollar store called police to say that a female customer had thrown candy at her. A teenage girl, Kayla, and two of her cousins were walking nearby when a patrol car pulled alongside them. “Come here now, or I’m gonna put you in handcuffs,” an officer told her, bodycam video shows. “Don’t make me chase after you, I’m not in the mood.” Within seconds, the officer wrestled her to the ground. “I was just a little girl, and they were so aggressive against me,” she said in an interview.
She was found delinquent in charges related to the arrest itself, court documents show. She said she was placed on probation. She used to think police “were here to protect us. But when you see things like that for yourself, it’s unbelievable,” she said. At the time of the incident, police officials said the officer had acted appropriately. The department did not respond to requests for comment.
Reporters at The Marshall Project examined dozens of individual cases in which police officers used force on Black girls. Many of the incidents started small — an allegation of a teenager throwing candy at a store clerk, a teen who skipped school because she was feeling stressed out, a group of girls swimming at a condo complex’s pool.
These situations escalated when a girl talked back to an officer or did not immediately follow instructions. In some cases, police body-slammed teens to the ground, punched them, used Tasers or pointed guns at girls. None of these teenagers were armed.
It’s hard to say how representative these incidents are. Limited national data on police use of force against minors comes from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It estimates that emergency rooms nationwide treated 21,000 people under the age of 18 for nonfatal injuries at the hands of police and security guards from 2015 through 2019. More than 7,000 of them, or a third, were Black youth, even though they account for just 13% of children in America.
This data, which represents only a fraction of total force cases, doesn’t give details about the incidents, including how severe the injuries were. Many of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies don’t track that information, either, and criminal court records are often sealed in cases involving juveniles.
In the six cities that provided enough data for us to analyze, police force against children and youth made up only 10% of all cases. Incidents involving girls were even less common — about 2% of total cases.
But the effects on girls were profound, they and their families told us, describing nightmares, fear of leaving the house and distrust of police. “These encounters have lasting traumatic effects that can shape life decisions and behavior,” said Craig Futterman, a law professor at the University of Chicago.
Few departments have specific policies governing interactions between officers and youth, we found. One of the rare ones that does is Cleveland, which took more than five years to enact guidelines after police killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice. That department’s new youth policy requires, for example, that officers use age-appropriate language.
Many law enforcement experts say police have few good options when it comes to dealing with youth, particularly in cases that involve teens who are fighting or threatening others. Teenagers, they note, can be as large as officers and may carry weapons.
Age is only one of many factors police must consider when they assess threats, said David Thomas, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and a former member of the police department in Gainesville, Florida. “How many officers are there? How many subjects are there? What is the height and body weight?”
And also, he added, “What do you want me to do to control them?”
The way Stuart remembers it, she couldn’t calm down. And the more officers told her to, the worse she felt, she told The Marshall Project.
After the officer pepper sprayed her, police drove her to the station. Her parents picked her up and took her to a medical center. She had cuts, a possible concussion, a burning feeling on her face, and pain in her hip, neck, shoulder, lower back and abdomen, according to a complaint she filed in court.
The viral video of the officer spraying her shone a spotlight on Hagerstown, a city of 40,000 about 75 miles northwest of Baltimore.
In its heyday, the city was a manufacturing center for everything from airplanes to pipe organs. But in recent years, it has been so ravaged by opioids that public memorials to overdose victims dot the downtown.
Newspaper accounts describe decades of racial tension in Hagerstown, including a White crowd at a baseball game refusing to clap for Willie Mays in 1950 and a former city police officer convicted in 2007 of making racist threats.
Days after the incident, Stuart and the police department held competing press conferences.
Stuart stood before a group of reporters and read from a prepared statement describing the accident and accusing the police of mistreatment.
Hagerstown’s police chief at the time, Victor Brito, told reporters that the officers had acted properly. Police had to detain Stuart because she’d been “assaultive” when they tried to question her about the accident, he said, and officers used an “appropriate amount of force.”
Police announced that Stuart would face charges including disorderly conduct, two counts of second-degree assault for kicking officers, and failure to obey a traffic light.
She eventually wrote an apology to officers for cursing during the encounter, and all charges were dropped.
Her mother, Christina Stuart, said she doesn’t condone her daughter’s language with the officers — but that doesn’t excuse their actions.
“I feel that they did everything wrong,” she said. “The way they manhandled her was absolutely ridiculous.”
The mother, who is White, confirmed that she has told her children not to talk to police without her: “Officers talk to me different.”
For Stuart, it was impossible to return to normal life.
Before the incident, she had hoped for a college soccer scholarship. Afterward, she felt that other students stared at her in the hallways, she said. She quit the soccer team.
In 2017, she sued the police and city for violating her civil rights. In its legal response, the city said that officers had been justified in using force because she went on a “shrill and profane tirade and tried to trip and kick the officers.” But the city settled in 2019, paying her $40,000, according to city records.
“The City has not acknowledged any wrongdoing and supports all of its law enforcement officers,” Wes Decker, a spokesman for Hagerstown, wrote in a joint statement from the city and police department. “All of our officers work hard to protect and serve the citizens of Hagerstown.” The officers named in the lawsuit did not respond to email requests for comment. Brito, who is now the police chief in Rockville, Maryland, referred all questions to Hagerstown police.
A few police departments have started training officers to handle children and teenagers differently from adults.
Lt. Shelly Katkowski is the training director for the police department in Burlington, a city in central North Carolina. She focuses on teaching communication and critical thinking skills, she said, adding that many new recruits have been taught to see everyone as a threat.
“There are so many things that we deal with that really have nothing to do with crime,” she said. “It’s really challenging for some of these officers who have not had a lot of life experience.”
Strategies for Youth, a nonprofit aimed at improving interactions between law enforcement and young people, said it has trained officers in more than 20 states about developmental differences between teens and adults. Officers learn to recognize signs of trauma, to speak slowly and to ask questions like, “What would be helpful to you?”, said Lisa H. Thurau, the group’s executive director.
“You have to treat kids differently,” she said. “If we understand that at the cognitive level, how come we’re not changing the policies?”
After Stuart graduated from high school in May 2018, she enlisted in the U.S. Army. She made it through bootcamp, but said she failed a medical exam because of hip problems.
By the fall of 2019, she found herself back home, living with her parents, who work for a tow truck business.
She said she still feels under a microscope in her hometown. “When I do go to the store, I get people staring at me,” Stuart said. “I don’t know how to handle that sometimes, so I just try to avoid it as much as possible.”
“I see a police officer — a police officer just minding his business — and just instantly start trembling.”
She has struggled with relationships, she said. In 2019, officers arrested her after an altercation with a boyfriend. Police accused her of going over to his house and striking him in the head with a knife. The extent of his injuries is not clear from court records, but prosecutors dropped felony charges. Stuart pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and served a year of unsupervised probation.
Stuart said she decided to speak publicly about her experiences in hopes that no other young people would go through the same thing. When she watched the viral video of police pepper spraying the 9-year-old in Rochester, Stuart said, she felt kinship and sadness.
“Same thing that happened to me happened to her, same exact thing,” she said. “It broke my heart.”
Wendy Ruderman and Joseph Neff of The Marshall Project and Andrew Fan and Sam Stecklow of The Invisible Institute contributed reporting.