For the second month in a row, Latoya Harris walked into the Portland Building this evening hoping to alter cops' ability to arrest children, as they did her young daughter last year.
This time, though, she had a realistic shot.
Since the Mercury first reported Harris' story— revealed at April's meeting of the city's police Citizen Review Committee (CRC)—local attorneys and media outlets have coalesced around the woman's plea. Tonight, when Harris recounted the May 2013 afternoon her 9-year-old daughter, clad in a swimsuit and towel, was cuffed and taken down to the police bureau's central precinct, she brought a lot of momentum.
Local defense attorneys and youth services organizations are suggesting changes to Portland city policy based on Harris' story. And earlier today, the police department announced it will convene a workgroup that could recommend tweaks to police directives that deal with arresting juveniles.
"This is an area where the Portland Police Bureau has identified a gap in policy," Portland police Captain Dave Famous, who oversees internal affairs and police investigations, told CRC members.
The committee got a look, this evening, at how that gap might be filled.
Mark Mckechnie, executive director of nonprofit law firm Youth, Rights & Justice presented a set of police policy changes that would prevent situations such as Harris'.
Under that proposal:
•Children under 10 wouldn't be subject to arrest unless cops had a juvenile judge's order.
•Kids under 12 could be arrested if "only when there is no means less restrictive to insure the child's appearance in court," there is probable cause a child committed a class A or B felony, and might commit more if not restrained.
•If police arrest a child under 12, officers would have to bring the prisoner to the Juvenile Justice Complex.
Tweaking police policy is only one option. McKechnie and Joe Hagedorn, a supervising juvenile defense attorney with Metropolitan Public Defenders, also mentioned changes to the city code—via Portland City Council—or to state law, which was described as "a heavy lift."
Of those options, McKechnie said a change to police policy is potentially the least permanent—the cops could just change it back later—though he believes the bureau is sincere in seeking out improvements.
"I think the incident that brought us here really shocked the conscience of the community," McKechnie said. "Everyone I’ve talked to thinks this girl and her family were wronged. We can’t make everything right, but we should at least do something."
This furor began last month, but the incident that set it off actually occurred on May 2, 2013. Two Portland officers, David McCarthy and Matthew Huspek, were investigating a fight Harris' daughter was involved in roughly a week before, at the Boys and Girls Club in Columbia Villa.
By the time cops knocked on Harris' door that day, her daughter—a model student, according to Harris—had already been disciplined for her involvement in the fight. The girl had been running through the sprinkler, so was in her swimsuit and a towel when the police arrived.
According to an incident report, McCarthy and Huspek didn't like the girl's reaction to their questions— "vague answers," "inconsistent statements," looking down at the ground and crossing her arms. They handcuffed the girl and took her downtown. Harris says she brought actual clothes out to the squad car before they left, but the officers wouldn't let her daughter change. They agreed to bring the clothes along, but Harris says the girl was still in her swimsuit when police released her.
"My daughter has never been the same," Harris said tonight. "You’re talking about straight-A, spunky, sassy, sensitive girl who now is sad and angry and withdrawn."
After the incident, Harris filed a complaint with the city's Independent Police Review Division but was told the officers followed bureau policy. The most the division could do was label the complaint a "service improvement opportunity." That would have allowed Harris to talk about the incident with the arresting officers' supervisor, but not much more.
Harris decided to tell her daughter's story anyway, laying it out last month before the CRC, a citizen panel charged with studying police bureau policies and hearing appeals in police misconduct cases.
"I don't know we need to do anything official beyond what we've done today, other than to make sure that this is not a flash in the pan," committee member Jamie Troy said at the close of tonight's testimony. "I'm pretty convinced there will be some systemic change."
"I generally agree, but systems are easily distracted," said Jeff Bissonnette, another CRC member. He suggested "a strike force, or at least some people running point."
The CRC created a strike force.
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