When the officers came to her home, the 9-year-old girl was still wet from running through the neighborhood sprinkler. She wore flip-flops, a pink towel and a swimsuit. The officers took her away wearing handcuffs.
Her mother's response said it all: "She's just a child."
Yes, you read that correctly: Police officers in Portland, Ore., handcuffed a 9-year-old-girl and took her to the station in a police car. They photographed and fingerprinted her and detained her for nearly an hour before her mother arrived.
Her "crime"? Getting in a fight with another kid - a fight that took place nearly a week beforehand and ended with apologies on all sides.
According to The Oregonian newspaper, this all started with a scuffle on a basketball court at the Boys & Girls Club in Portland's New Columbia neighborhood. Witnesses told police the 9-year-old got in the middle of a dispute between two other girls who had been arguing because one tattled on the other for drawing on a desk. The 9-year-old later ended up in a fistfight with one of the other girls outside the club. Both girls apologized to each other. The 9-year-old was sent home and suspended from the club for one week.
Done and done, right? Wrong. After receiving a call from the mother of the other girl involved in the fight, police arrived at the 9-year-old's home to investigate. Finding the 9-year-old's statements "inconsistent" with witness reports, the officers took her into custody, accusing her of fourth-degree assault.
What were these officers thinking? Departmental policy mandates that juveniles taken into custody for any Class A misdemeanor "shall" be fingerprinted and photographed at the forensics division. Police consider those under age 18 to be juveniles and fourth-degree assault is a Class A misdemeanor.
Assault is a serious crime. But the fact of the matter is that kids fight, even though they shouldn't. Usually, no one gets hurt and no lasting harm is done. According to reports, this wasn't an exception. Staff members found no obvious injuries on any of the girls.
Indeed, the experience of the arrest seems to have caused more lasting harm than anything else. One year later, the 9-year-old has transferred to another school because of teasing about the incident and has been in counseling since last June. "She is a different child," said her mother, LaToya Harris.
Harris is determined to ensure nothing similar happens again in Portland. When she filed a complaint with the police department, the Independent Police Review Division found the officers violated no departmental policies. Undeterred, she told her story to the Citizen Review Committee, which hears complaints of alleged officer misconduct against Portland police. Now, concerned citizens are demanding changes in departmental policy.
Kids shouldn't be cuffed and taken to the station every time little fists fly. Years ago, handcuffing a 9-year old after an incident like this would have been unthinkable - everyone would have forgotten about it in a week. We look forward to seeing changes in departmental policy that give officers more discretion to treat squabbles between kids with the gentle touch they require.
- Evan Bernick is visiting legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service