Portland police arrest, handcuff a nine-year-old girl

 

I got into a few fights as a kid. I saw many, many more. Kids fight. It’s part of growing up. I don’t recall a single incident in which the school, a parent, or any other adult decided it was necessary to get the police involved. And I’d imagine that if anyone had tried, unless some kid had been severely injured, our local police would have thought better of turning kids’ fisticuffs into a criminal incident.

But we’re living in an age in which we use the criminal justice system to address a multitude of problems once handled by parents, schools, religious institutions, and communities. And so we get stories like the one currently inspiring outrage in Portland, in which police came to the home of a nine-year-old girl, arrested her, handcuffed her and carted her off to booking because of her alleged involvement in a fight at a Boys & Girls Club six days earlier.*

The accusations against the girl really deserve a point-by-point response. From the Oregonian.

Harris’ 9-year-old daughter, witnesses told police, got in the middle of a dispute between two other girls who had been arguing because one told on the other in school earlier in the day for drawing on a desk.

Kid sometimes draw on desks. Other kids will sometimes tell on those kids. That can lead to altercations. These kids were nine.

The 9-year-old ended up in a fistfight with one of the other girls outside the club, according to a police report. A staff member broke the fight up, but said Harris’ daughter continued to try to strike and kick the other girl before they were separated in different rooms.

These would be serious accusations if the girl was, say, 25 and armed. But she was unarmed. And she was nine.

Both girls apologized to each other. Staff members found no obvious injuries on any of the girls, they told police.

It isn’t surprising that the girls weren’t able to seriously injure one another. (The unarrested girl apparently had a bruised cheek.) Because they were nine.

The 9-year-old was sent home and suspended from the club for one week.

That seems like a reasonable punishment, given that the girl was nine.

But later that day, the mother of one of the girls called Portland police to report the fight. The mother accused Harris’ daughter of striking her child in the face and bashing her head against a brick wall, and told police she wanted an arrest made.

An appropriate police response here might have been to talk to the parents of the offending girl. Perhaps they talk to the club. But they also should have told the angry parent that they aren’t going to arrest a kid who is just nine years old based on secondhand information about a fight that resulted in no injuries. Because she’s nine.

Portland Officers David McCarthy and Officer Matthew Huspek returned to the Harris home six days later on May 2 to question the girl. McCarthy wrote in his report that the 9-year-old gave “vague answers” and appeared to get angry when pressed for more details.

Cops had just shown up at her house to interrogate her. She was nine years old at the time. They were surprised that she seemed upset? Or that she  gave “vague” answers?

“I observed (her) breathing speed up, she looked down at the ground … crossed her arms and would eventually answer my questions,” McCarthy wrote.

Her breathing sped up? As she faced accusatory questioning from cops who had come to her home? She was nine.

Finding the 9-year-old’s statements “inconsistent” with witnesses who described her as the aggressor, the officers took her into custody, accusing her of fourth-degree assault, the police report said.

Reminder: She was nine years old.

“Officer Huspek and I handcuffed (her) and no inventory was performed due to the tight clothing (the girl) wore,” McCarthy wrote.

Of course they handcuffed her. Officer safety and all. You can’t be too careful with a nine year old.

Harris said the officers aggressively questioned her daughter. “They repeatedly asked her, ‘Why don’t you tell me what really happened?’”

Because she’s nine.

When they led her daughter to the patrol car, Harris asked to go with them, but said the officers wouldn’t let her. They did offer to drive the 9-year-old girl back home after she was fingerprinted and photographed.

I mean, I really don’t want to believe this actually happened. The poor kid was nine years old.

The girl was photographed and fingerprinted on the 12th floor of the Justice Center at the police Forensic Service Division and held in a holding area for just over an hour until her mother arrived.

A nine-year-old was cuffed, photographed, and fingerprinted. For a fight with a friend of about the same age. A nine-year-old.

A year later, Harris said, her daughter “is a different child.” The girl, now 10, had been a talented and gifted student at Rosa Parks Elementary, but transferred in October to another school because of teasing and has been in counseling since June, Harris said.

The district attorney’s office never brought charges against the girl, and Harris filed a complaint.

The arrest probably derailed the kid’s life. Hopefully not permanently. I wonder if the complaining parent feels satisfied that justice was done, here — to this nine-year-old.

The Independent Police Review Division, under oversight of Portland’s auditor, found officers violated no Police Bureau policies, and forwarded the complaint to the officers’ supervisors at North Precinct for a “service improvement opportunity,” essentially a debriefing.

Just to reiterate, here, the Portland Police Department has no policy against arresting, cuffing, booking, and dumping into a holding area a nine-year-old accused of fighting with another nine-year-old.

Police spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson said officers use handcuffs as a safeguard, and acted according to bureau policy.

Officer safety is paramount. There are no exceptions for nine-year-olds. She’s lucky she wasn’t tasered.

The policy (PPB Directive 640.70) says juveniles taken into custody for any felony or Class A misdemeanor “shall” be fingerprinted and photographed at the forensics division, while juveniles taken into custody for Class B and C misdemeanors “may” be fingerprinted and photographed. It makes no age distinctions. Police consider those under age 18 as juveniles. Fourth-degree assault is a Class A misdemeanor.

When it comes to the rigid adherence to procedure, there is no difference between a 17-year-old and a nine-year-old. There will be no exercise of officer discretion, good judgment, or common sense when it comes to nine-year-olds. Or, presumably, seven-year-olds. Or five-year-olds. All are juveniles.

I’m not trying to be flip here. It’s just that there isn’t much else to say. We arrest nine-year-olds now. For scuffling with other kids. And then we point to policies, procedures, and rulebooks when someone quite correctly asks what the hell is going on. The utter insanity of all of this ought to be self-evident. But one more time: She was nine.

(*This post has been corrected. It initially stated that the police responded on the same day.)

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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