A PUBLIC DEFENDER is hoping to pressure Portland City Council into approving a ban on the handcuffing of children 12 and younger—an effort spurred by a Mercury story about the 2013 arrest and booking of a nine-year-old girl and the police bureau's cold response when her mother filed a complaint.
Chris O'Connor, an outspoken advocate on mental health and civil rights issues, announced on Twitter last week that he'd begun building a coalition of fellow lawyers who'd support his push to change city code.
That's if city hall decides it wants to listen. Only one city commissioner, Nick Fish, has so far expressed any interest in discussing the subject.
"We look forward to working with the council," O'Connor tells the Mercury. "We hope it's not a big lobbying issue. I'd hope none of the commissioners would be pro-handcuffing a nine-year-old."
The police bureau currently has no guidelines for those presumably rare cases when officers decide it's a good idea to handcuff a child, and then take that child to jail.
The nine-year-old whose case was examined by the Mercury had been arrested days after a fight at the Boys and Girls Club in New Columbia ["Arrested at Age Nine," News, April 16]. She was handcuffed outside her front door while still wearing a bathing suit, and she was taken alone to Central Precinct.
Officer David McCarthy wrote in his police report that he and his partner, Matthew Huspek, arrested the girl because of "inconsistent" and "vague" statements that didn't match what other children had said about the fight.
When the girl's mother, Latoya Harris, complained to the city's Independent Police Review (IPR), a branch of the city auditor's office, she was told the officers hadn't violated any policies. The IPR staff treated the case, instead, as a non-disciplinary "service improvement opportunity." And even that caused a major row with police brass who saw the whole affair as "meritless."
O'Connor's proposal, according to a draft shared with the Mercury, would fill in that policy hole. "Except in extraordinary cases of immediate danger to a child's safety or a child's immediate danger to self or others," it would ban cops, private security guards, and city and school employees from using handcuffs on a child 12 or younger. Violations would come with a $500 fine and/or six months in jail.
His plan also would force officers to tell a parent when arresting a child days after an alleged crime. Harris was on hand before her daughter was arrested, but O'Connor says that might not always be the case.
Joseph Hagedorn, who heads the Multnomah County juvenile unit for Metropolitan Public Defender, is an early supporter. Hagedorn, in the Mercury last week, condemned the girl's arrest, and raised concerns about the trauma and racial implications involved.
"We'd like some people to pay attention in city hall," he says.
Meanwhile, the city's Citizen Review Committee (CRC)—a police policy and misconduct watchdog—is thinking of scheduling a deep discussion of the issue during its next regularly scheduled meeting next month. The panel's chair, Rodney Paris, said he was trying to connect with Harris. Harris briefly told her daughter's story at the CRC's April meeting.
Commissioner Fish was circumspect, but said he's "very interested" in hearing what the attorneys working on the handcuffing proposal have to say—and that he'll make time to meet when the proposal is final.
"It's an important subject worthy of council consideration," Fish says.
Mayor Charlie Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, told the Mercury last week that he wanted to check in with the office's policy advisor on police issues. But he hasn't returned messages seeking comment since then.
Commissioners Steve Novick and Amanda Fritz declined to comment without learning more about the case, and Commissioner Dan Saltzman's office didn't reply to questions at all.
Says O'Connor: "It's not rocket science."