People detained by Park Police on the Mall. (Tim Krepp)

The D.C. Council member who chairs the public safety committee condemned U.S. Park Police on Friday for handcuffing and detaining three teenagers for selling water on the Mall without a valid vendor’s license.

The plainclothes officers were part of a task force seeking out illegal vending. But the council member, Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), said the youths could have been dealt with in a “less severe” way. The youths were released with verbal warnings and no charges.

Pictures of the cuffed teens — all African American — were posted widely on social media as they sat on the ground in front of officers Thursday afternoon near 12th Street and Jefferson Drive NW.

In his letter to Park Police Chief Robert D. MacLean, Allen said that had the same officers encountered children with a lemonade stand and a hand-painted sign, “I doubt we would have seen little girls in pigtails handcuffed on the ground.”

Allen asked MacLean whether he should warn parents across the District about not stepping on park property, which includes dozens of small “pocket parks,” lest they “are likely to be handcuffed and searched.”

Some of the photos circulated on Twitter were taken by Tim Krepp, a tour guide for 11 years. “I’m pretty frankly disgusted by it,” Krepp said. “The Park Service does an incredibly poor job of maintaining water infrastructure . . . these kids are fulfilling a need.”

Allen took exception to a statement from Sgt. Anna Rose, a Park Police spokeswoman, who was quoted by U.S. News and World Report saying, “This has gotten blown out of proportion.”

The council member said the incident shows how African Americans are treated by police and is a “reflection of who we are and the values that we share. And I don’t believe that the image of young African American men handcuffed on the ground for selling bottled water is a reflection of my city.”

Rose did not address Allen’s letter or respond to a request to interview MacLean. She sent a prepared statement that said four people initially were detained “for illegally vending on the Mall.” She said one adult was released when it became apparent that he was not involved.

The others were held for investigation. Rose said each told the officers they did not have the required permit. She said one of the youths is 16 and two are 17. They were released to their parents or guardians.

justin.moyer@washpost.com

Fenit Nirappil and Perry Stein contributed to this report.