The First Baptist Church was packed Sunday as more than 150 angry parents and community members, almost entirely African American, expressed their concerns about policing in Murfreesboro, Tenn. The city’s police chief, Karl Durr, who is white, was there to listen.
The crowd had one particular incident in mind: the arrest of several children, ranging from 6 to 11 years old.
Several days after a pickup basketball game that took place off-campus, on Rivera Drive, a video of a fight that broke out during the heated game allegedly surfaced. After reviewing it, Murfreesboro police visited Hobgood Elementary School, where they slapped handcuffs on the thin wrists of several children, arresting and charging them with criminal responsibility for the acts of another, according to WKRN.
The children have been released.
Some details remain hazy, because the number of children arrested (which NBC News reports as five), their names and a copy of the video cannot be released, since state law prohibits releasing information concerning the arrests of minors.
One couple, though, spoke publicly about their children’s arrest.
Zacchaeus and LaVonia Crawford have focused on raising their children to avoid legal trouble. Now, both of their daughters and their son, ranging from 9 to 11 years old and whom Zacchaeus refers to as “babies,” have been arrested.
“I always thought as long as I raised my kids the same way, they wouldn’t be in the system,” Zacchaeus Crawford told the Daily News Journal. “There are innocent kids that have been arrested that have been entered in a system they have no business in.”
“They’re not even in the piece of evidence they’re using to arrest these kids,” he said, referring to the video of the fight.
In fact, he said, two of his children weren’t even at the game, much less in the video. He said his son was home sick and one of his daughters was out celebrating with her basketball team.
“I’m just a concerned parent who wants to make sure the rights of my kids aren’t being violated just because someone thinks that they can violate them,” he added.
His wife, LaVonia Crawford, told DNJ that the police won’t speak to her.
“Anytime I try to get an explanation, it’s like they blow me off and try not to tell me what’s going on,” she said.
“It’s unimaginable, unfathomable that authority figures would … do something that has such implications,” Bishop Joseph Walker III, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church of Nashville, told the Tennessean. “When we, as a community, are telling our kids don’t get involved in violence and don’t get in harm’s way, [arresting them for not intervening] is the most amazing paradox of our society — and it is devastating to us.”
Police and city officials have said they will complete a review of the arrest incident within 15 days.
“If something needs to be corrected, it will be,” city manager Rob Lyons told the crowd at First Baptist Church, according to the Associated Press.
David Settles, who is running for a seat on the Murfreesboro School Board, said at the meeting that if the situation isn’t handled correctly, “hell is about to break loose.”
“I expect the chief of police and manager of the city to rectify this situation,” Zacchaeus Crawford said. “The longer you wait, the more I feel like you’re not going to solve these issues.”
Christopher Williams, a First Baptist youth pastor, agreed.
“I hope we’re not setting a precedent where there’s a fight and we send everyone and their mom to jail,” he said, according to DNJ.
And the outrage doesn’t stop there. On Tuesday, two state lawmakers spoke out, and one called for an investigation of the arrests.
“This sort of behavior is never appropriate,” State Rep. Mike Stewart (D), who called on the federal Department of Justice and state authorities to “immediately open an investigation,” told WKRN. “There’s never a reason for law enforcement officers to go into a school where children are learning peacefully, handcuff elementary school children and take them off to, essentially, juvenile jail.”
“We need a full investigation into this unconscionable incident to safeguard the children’s federal and state civil rights and to determine whether those involved should be prosecuted for criminal misconduct,” Stewart said. “This is every parent’s nightmare, and we need to make sure that it is never repeated.”
State Rep. John Ray Clemmons (D) agreed, saying, “There is not rational justification for this act in our society.”
“Sunday was an opportunity to listen, and we are committed to reviewing those concerns in a thorough and complete manner,” Durr, the police chief, said in an official statement from the Murfreesboro Police Department on Tuesday. “The Department is committed to assuring that its officers consistently use good judgment and act in accordance with policy. If we need to make changes or address issues internally we will identify any issue and act accordingly.”
Actions like this are increasingly common in America, though.
In Flint, Mich., last November, police handcuffed a 7-year-old child diagnosed with ADHD, which later prompted an apology, the New York Daily News reported. In 2012, Baltimore police handcuffed four children under the age of 10, arresting them, CBS Baltimore reported. In Florida alone, more than 100 5- and 6-year-olds were arrested in one 12-month period, ABC News reported.
Some say actions like this ingrain distrust of police in children at a young age, increasing the strain between police and the citizens they’re duty bound to protect.
By their very nature, children will make mistakes. But Univeristy of Tennessee-Knoxville professor Stephanie Bohon, who founded the school’s Center for the Study of Social Justice, told the Tennessean that a more age-appropriate punishment such as grounding or detention should be implemented, not arrest.
“When you deal with that kind of behavior by handcuffing children and running them through the legal system, the first thing they learn is the police are there to punish them, and they are not there to help them,” Bohon said.
Rep. Clemmons shares these views.
“We cannot begin to imagine the fear and confusion experienced by these young children,” he said. “This experience will undoubtedly remain with them as they mature into adulthood and negatively mold their views of law enforcement officials. It is truly unfortunate that the inappropriate acts of a few, who are not representative of the other brave men and women who honorably serve our communities, will create a new level of distrust between our communities and law enforcement.”