9-year-old led away in handcuffs by Portland police prompts outrage, push for policy changes

officermccarthyandhuspeknc.jpgOregon Live- by Maxine Bernstein

Two uniformed Portland police officers showed up at the home of a 9-year-old girl last May, questioned her on the front porch about a fight at a youth club six days earlier, then handcuffed her as she stood in a blue-and-white bathing suit.

They drove her to police headquarters in downtown Portland, where she had her fingerprints and mugshot taken.

Latoya Harris couldn’t believe what was happening as she watched the officers head off with her daughter in the back seat. The girl was still wet after running through a neighborhood sprinkler, wearing flip flops and a pink Velco wrap-around towel over her swimsuit.  

“When they put handcuffs on, I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this has got to be a joke,’ ” Harris recalled Monday. “The look on my daughter’s face went from humiliation and fear, to a look of sheer panic.”

Harris is speaking out publicly after she complained to the city’s Independent Police Review Division and no significant discipline resulted.

Her account is now prompting citizen members of a police oversight panel and youth justice advocates to press for new city guidelines that would prevent police from taking children into custody under the age of 10 without a juvenile court order.

“I’m just a mother at the end of her rope,” Harris said. “I’m going to advocate for my daughter, but no child should have to go through that.”

The police encounter resulted from an argument between several girls near the basketball courts outside the Boys & Girls Club on North Trenton Street in Portland’s New Columbia neighborhood on April 26, 2013.

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.

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.

Both girls apologized to each other. Staff members found no obvious injuries on any of the girls, they told police. The 9-year-old was sent home and suspended from the club for one week.

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. Police took a cell phone photo of a red bruise on the girl’s cheekbone. Officers went to Harris’ home to try to talk with her daughter, but were told she was at her aunt’s house.

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.

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

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.

“Officer Huspek and I handcuffed (her) and no inventory was performed due to the tight clothing (the girl) wore,” McCarthy wrote. The report did not mention that the girl was wearing a bathing suit.

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

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.

Harris said she wasn’t about to let police bring her daughter back in a police car. “This has got to be some kind of mistake. She’s just a child,” Harris said she kept thinking.

Harris said she took a bus to police headquarters because she didn’t have a car. 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 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 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.

Perturbed by the lack of response, Harris last month told her story to the Citizen Review Committee, a panel that hears complaints of alleged officer misconduct against Portland police. The Portland Mercury first reported Harris’ account.

On Wednesday, the panel is inviting Harris back, and digging deeper into whether the city or Police Bureau should adopt more restrictive guidelines for taking children into custody.

“We really don’t think there’s circumstances where children under 10 should be taken into custody,” said Mark McKechnie, executive director of Youth, Rights & Justice, a not-for-profit law firm that serves vulnerable children.

The Citizen Review Committee also has invited juvenile advocates to the meeting. “We just want to hear what some of these experts say, and based on that, decide if we want to weigh in and make a recommendation,” said Rodney Paris, the committee chair.

McKechnie and Joseph Hagedorn, chief supervising attorney for the Metropolitan Public Defender’s juvenile unit, said they’ve talked in the last week about two potential changes to city ordinances and police directives that would:

— Prevent police from taking a child under 10 years old into custody without an order from a juvenile court judge.

— Allow police to take children ages 10 and 11 into custody only on Class A or B felonies. For less serious offenses, a court order would be needed.

Both said they were concerned about why police made the arrest almost a week after the fight, and particularly, when the girl was at home with a parent.

“It was way over the top for them to do that,” Hagedorn said.

Jamie Troy, a member of the Citizen Review Committee, said he was disturbed that the 9-year-old was handcuffed. “While there are some instances where handcuffing of kids may be necessary, I would hope that would only be in very rare instances. As a community, we need to come together and sort this out.”

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

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.

Harris said she never got an answer about why the officers needed to handcuff her daughter and lead her off.

“In my opinion, they were trying to scare and humiliate her,” she said. “All they had to do was give her a talking to. We’re talking about two grown men in uniform with guns.”

–Maxine Bernstein


One thought on “9-year-old led away in handcuffs by Portland police prompts outrage, push for policy changes

  1. “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.”

    Yes, rather than speak to the 9 year-old’s parents and handle it together, peacefully, you called the police and made matters worse.

    Seriously? The mother of the victim wanted a 9 year old arrested rather than speak to the parents? I mean the girl is 9!!! You’re afraid of a 9 year old and her parents?

    Whatever happened to people taking the dispute into their own hands and handling their own affairs for something like this? Why the need to get police involved?

    It used to be that the you’d call the parents of the attacker and say, “You’re kid hit my kid. What should we do about it?” and handle things peacefully. The parents of the attacking kid would give their kid a spanking and punish him or her. Finally, the parents of the attacker would find some way of paying and making amends peacefully and apologizing for their kid’s behavior, in which they would make sure it would never happen again.

    Instead, we live in a generation where everyone is out to extort money from someone, no one trusts anyone and the parents never think their kid is guilty of anything. Discipline is not enforced and spanking your kid for wrong doing gets you a trip to the DPS. So they call the cops who only make matters worse.

    (Sigh…) I truly miss the good old days.

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