Rochester, N.Y. - Police Chief James Sheppard said he's reviewing an officer's use of pepper spray on city school students downtown. The incident happened Friday as police were trying to break up student fights and crowds on Main Street before school started.
In video taken by 13WHAM News, an officer is seen spraying people who appeared to be not involved or moving away.
School board member Van White said, "I just can't understand a circumstance or reason that an officer would have had to use those consecutive bursts of pepper spray on students when they're retreating in a calm and orderly way."
Chief Sheppard said pepper spray is a common tool to break up crowds, but he said he understood the concern raised by the video.
"What we want to look at is the totality of the circumstances, because a lot of times when you look at that small picture, you don't know what occurred before. You don't know what occurred down the street that's not in the camera's view, as opposed to what the officer is seeing. You don't know what interactions he may have had with those individuals just prior to that," Sheppard said.
Police Locust Club President Mike Mazzeo had no problem with the video. "With pepper spray, it's important people feel the effects." He said officers will spray people who are retreating or walking away because they don't want the individuals to congregate again down the street.
Rochester City School District Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said he trusts the RPD do investigate the incident.
"I was driving by when the situation was occurring. It was unfortunate so many of our students were behaving in a way that doesn't meet my expectation," Vargas said.
Fights on Main Street, which is a transfer point for public buses, have been an problem for several years. When after-school fights became an issue, the buses added more direct routes, bypassing downtown. Also, student passes had restrictions. Now the problems have shifted to the mornings.
Sheppard said the pepper spray incident may have been part of the frustration officers feel. He said visitors and workers are also fed up.
"It's what they've been dealing with on a daily basis," Sheppard said.
Police, school and bus officials are in talks to remedy the situation. A new bus station will open downtown in 2015.
"I think we really need to ask ourselves if the way that we're busing is safe for our community and safe for children. I'm not convinced of that," said City Councilman Adam McFadden.
The officer involved in the pepper spray incident remains on the job in his current role.