May 5 2014
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.
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