Arrested at Age Nine 

Cops Insist Handcuffing a Girl—and Taking Her to Jail—Is Perfectly Okay

THE CUSTODY REPORT for this North Portland assault call from April 2013 reads pretty much like all the other reports Portland police officers write up every day.

It recounts a relatively minor fight full of cursing and punching—but no injuries beyond some bruises. It mentions "vague answers" and "inconsistent statements" from a suspect who "became angered" by follow-up questions—someone whose breathing notably sped up while she "looked down at the ground, sighed, [and] crossed her arms."

All of that, the report says, was enough to justify a trip downtown for fingerprints and a mug shot. Still typical.

Except, of course, that this case was anything but typical: The suspect hauled away in handcuffs was only nine years old—a straight-A student in Portland Public Schools' gifted program.

She was arrested almost a week after the fight—which erupted among a group of preteens at the Boys and Girls Club in New Columbia. And she was taken to jail just before dinner, without her mother, while still wearing nothing but a bathing suit and towel. The officers didn't read the girl her Miranda rights. She was never charged.

It's a disturbing tale. Months later—following a formal complaint by the girl's mother—her case has opened up a bitter rift between the city's police brass and Independent Police Review Division (IPR). It's also raised uncomfortable questions about how police officers are trained to handle children, particularly when those children aren't threatening harm.

Meanwhile, the officers in question, David McCarthy and Matthew Huspek, have continued to earn plaudits for their community police work in New Columbia and with children in particular. Their faces appear on the Facebook page for the bureau's New Columbia detail.

"They put the handcuffs on her," the girl's mother, Latoya Harris, told the Mercury. "And everybody saw my daughter get perp-walked to the car. What stood out was the expression on my daughter's face. The fear and the sadness. We still have to see these officers in our community."

Harris says she'd already punished her daughter over the fight and that the encounter with the police has left the girl traumatized. Her daughter changed schools, she says, and is still in counseling.

"I didn't get the same girl back," Harris says.

Harris first told her daughter's story at this month's meeting of the Citizen Review Committee (CRC)—a citizen panel charged with studying police bureau policies and hearing appeals in police misconduct cases. She spoke with the Mercury in more detail in the days after the meeting and later shared the eight pages of police reports she'd obtained. The Mercury is not identifying the girl because of her age.

Harris said she went public after she filed a complaint with IPR last year—only to be told there would be no meaningful consequences.

Because bureau policy doesn't place any limits or conditions on the arrests of small children, IPR Director Constantin Severe explained, the most he could do was mark the complaint as a "service improvement opportunity" and send it to the officers' bosses at North Precinct.

It's a finding that essentially lets a complainant talk things over with the cop they've accused of wrongdoing. It lingers on an officer's record for three years, but it's not considered discipline.

"I feel very badly for the complainant and her mother," Severe said at the CRC meeting, acknowledging his office had "significant concerns" and that what happened "seems wrong." "This isn't a case we felt comfortable dismissing."

But even that limited step apparently led to outrage among senior police commanders in North Precinct—with some suggesting the whole thing was "meritless."

"We sent it to North and had some discussions," Severe said. "They made clear their feelings and their appreciation... or lack thereof."

North Precinct Commander Mike Leloff failed to return multiple messages seeking comment as of press time.

The bureau's public information office was also sent a list of questions. Among them: How officers are trained when it comes to taking children into custody, whether handcuffing is normal for children who aren't agitated, and how often children ages nine or younger are taken downtown for processing.

But Sergeant Pete Simpson, a police spokesman, emailed Tuesday, April 15, saying he couldn't comment on the arrest because of potential legal action. He did offer a general comment on how often children are arrested—and said it's policy, once someone's arrested, to handcuff them before they can be driven somewhere.

"I can say that the arresting of a nine-year-old is a rare occurrence," Simpson said, "but if an arrest is made, we have to handcuff for transportation."

Joseph Hagedorn, head of the Multnomah County juvenile unit for Metropolitan Public Defender, called this case "outrageous" and said the bureau ought to feel "embarrassed."

He said cops maybe could have taken the girl to the county's juvenile detention center instead of Central Precinct, and certainly not in handcuffs, given her age. But he also said the juvenile facility "would be unlikely" to accept her.

"It almost seems like there's an embarrassment aspect to it," Hagedorn says. "Like they were trying to make a point of embarrassing this child and scaring her straight. They have procedures, and their officers should know better—especially ones who are working with kids."

He also said he wasn't surprised Harris' daughter was in counseling and had struggled since her arrest. And he raised concerns about the girl's race—she's African American—and the disproportionate number of arrests facing young African Americans.

"When you make a decision like that, to arrest a child, it has long-term traumatic effects," Hagedorn says. "They are responsible."

McCarthy's report says he and Huspek were called to the Boys and Girls Club after the fight involving Harris' daughter had ended—and after club officials had sent Harris' daughter home.

The mom of another nine-year-old girl who'd been fighting—that girl accused Harris' daughter of knocking off her glasses and somehow hitting her head on a brick wall—had told officers she wanted to see Harris' daughter arrested.

A counselor at the club told police he thought the fight lasted only "about 30 seconds"—and though he missed most of it, he saw both girls throwing punches. McCarthy's accounting of the fight primarily relies on statements from other children.

Traci Rose, chief communications officer for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Portland, says staff have to call cops maybe three to five times a year, citywide. That doesn't include, she says, calls made by parents. She confirmed Harris' daughter was suspended from the club and sent home after the fight.

Rose also said that the fight involving Harris' daughter was the last time, no matter who placed the call, police showed up at the club in New Columbia.

"There isn't one club over the other we can point to and say that there's been a problem," Rose says.

Harris says her daughter knew she'd made a mistake. Harris even said she'd have been okay if the officers' visit was just that: a stern reminder that scuffles can lead to more serious problems. But she says that wasn't what happened.

"If they had just told her not to fight, I would have totally condoned it," she says. "But they went over and beyond."

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