As officers walk him across the street, the child lets out guttural cries. His jeans, by that point, also betray his fears. A dark stain runs across the front.
“What did he do?” someone can be heard yelling.
The answer will surprise some and not others: He didn’t commit a crime or hurt anyone. His mother told a Washington Post reporter that her son had leaned on a car on the corner of 14th and Girard streets in Northwest Washington, and when an officer told him to move, the fourth-grader talked back.
Worth getting handcuffed and detained as he wailed? Definitely not.
The incident — which comes just weeks after D.C. police handcuffed another black child, a 10-year-old boy who was later found “totally innocent” — has given city officials pause. D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine has launched a review of police practices. And the D.C. police department is conducting an internal investigation into the officer’s actions. On Friday, officials said, the officer, who joined the force in May 2016, was suspended.
The boy, who was not charged with a crime, was released at the scene to his mother. She later told Fox 5 DC, which first broadcast the video of the handcuffing, that she was “devastated.”
“I was traumatized for my son having to go through that,” she said. “His use of force was unnecessary. My son was not a threat.”
She also allowed her son to speak briefly on screen about the incident. In a small voice, he described feeling “scared.”
“Because I was in handcuffs and I thought I was locked up,” he said. “It hurt.”
Racine announced that, with the permission of the mayor and the police chief, his office will look at best practices across the country when it comes to officers interacting with children and make recommendations for improvements to the police department.
“I watched the video on social media just as many of our residents did, and I have many of the same questions that the community has,” Kevin Donahue, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said in a statement. “That’s why this incident is being investigated thoroughly by MPD. That is also why we are working with the Office of the Attorney General to review MPD’s policies, procedures, and training, as well as looking across the country at other police departments so our practices always reflect DC values.”
City officials are right to take this incident seriously. This moment, depending on how they address it, can become one of two things:
It can become that time the police made a boy who committed no crime wet himself, confirming what many people believe of law enforcement: They don’t care about some communities.
Or it can become that time the police made a boy who committed no crime wet himself, and realized things needed to change because they owe that to children across the city.
It will be interesting to see what recommendations come out of Racine’s office.
But one way city officials can start moving in the right direction already sits in front of them.
The American Civil Liberties Union of D.C. has been fighting in court for about a year to get the police department to fully comply with the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results, or NEAR Act. One aspect of it calls for officers to record specific information each time they stop members of the public.
Among the information the NEAR Act requires officers to collect is the person’s gender, race and date of birth. They are also supposed to note the reason for the stop, whether a person was searched and whether an arrest resulted from it.
Sounds simple. But three years after the D.C. Council passed the act, a page on the city’s website tracking the implementation of it shows that part is still “in progress.” Police have said they need to upgrade computer programs to collect the data.
“Until they implement the NEAR Act completely, which I think is going to require a court order, we are not going to have a comprehensive picture of how D.C. police are interacting with community members, either adults or juveniles,” said Scott Michelman, the lead ACLU attorney on the case.
“We don’t know how often kids are being stopped by the police,” Michelman said, “and if we did know that, we might be able to recommend some types of policy fixes.”
The ACLU, he said, has argued in court that the police would not be burdened by the data collection and showed how it could be done on a single page, which was modeled on a form the New York City Police Department uses.
The lack of transparency, Michelman said, “fuels community distrust, so when the cops are handcuffing kids, the reaction from the community is understandably suspicious.”
D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham has described the most recent incident as “not indicative” of the 500,000 interactions his officers have with the public each year.
On Friday, I sent a request to the police department, asking for three pieces of information: How many children under the age of 13 have been stopped and detained by D.C. police officers in the past five years? How many of them were handcuffed? How many of those stops resulted in arrests?
I was asked to file a request under the Freedom of Information Act, which is standard when asking for data that will take some time to gather. When I get those answers, I will share them with you. And if I don’t get them, if they don’t exist, I will share that with you, too.
Because we know that two D.C. children who did not commit crimes have been handcuffed in the past month. But what we don’t know should also concern us.