Report affirms excessive force against teen
By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
LARGO -- When a 15-year-old inmate called Florida's abuse hotline last year, claiming an officer had punched him in the mouth, authorities quickly ruled it "unsubstantiated."
In fact, a Department of Juvenile Justice analyst decided there was no reason to interview other youths in Pinellas County's Juvenile Detention Center, saying they couldn't have seen the incident because of darkness and obstructed views.
But last month, the Department of Juvenile Justice's inspector general concluded that the officer had used "unnecessary and improper force" on the youth. Though it did not cite Marcus Parker, a juvenile detention supervisor, for punching the boy, it said he had lifted the boy by his shirt and led him out a cafeteria door where he "was run into the door frame."
The boy suffered a cut lip.
What made the department change its mind? Two mothers, whose shoe-leather investigation turned up additional witnesses, including some of the youths initially passed over, that the DJJ and the Pinellas Sheriff's Office had not interviewed. They found the extra witnesses by talking to parents who were waiting in line to visit their children at the detention center and asking if they had heard about the incident.
Both women praised the DJJ Inspector General's Office for a thorough investigation that ultimately validated the boy's claim that he had been treated improperly. But both said they were frustrated by the system, which they say had initially brushed off the 15-year-old's complaint.
"I don't think that they bothered to investigate at all, to tell you the truth," said the boy's mother, Cassie Riley of Clearwater. "There was a room full of children that were there that had to have seen what went on."
"This is the type of thing that keeps happening," said Cathy Corry of Clearwater, who runs the Web site www.justice4kids.org, which tells parents how to file complaints about abuses within the juvenile system. She said the system adopts a "the brick-wall, deaf-ear syndrome."
Both said the episode raised questions about how well the juvenile justice system polices itself.
Others might be concerned, too. Corry said she received a call from a representative of the U.S. Department of Justice, who told her that the department was conducting a preliminary inquiry to determine whether abuses were widespread in Florida's juvenile justice system.
DJJ spokeswoman Catherine Arnold said the agency was in the process of firing Parker for "unbecoming conduct," violation of rules, insubordination and failure to provide truthful information during the course of an investigation. The incident with the 15-year-old was part of the reason, but not the whole reason, for that decision, she said. Parker has been on leave for six weeks, she said.
Parker could not be reached for comment.
Arnold denied that the initial DJJ investigation, called an "administrative review," was subpar.
"These administrative reviews are detailed, they're thorough and they're serious," she said.
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