Police might alter kid policy
Chief Chuck Harmon says the officers who handcuffed a 5-year-old girl last month should never have been involved in the incident.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published April 29, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - City police are not trained to handle the situation that led to the handcuffing of a 5-year-old girl last month and educators should not have called them to intervene, police Chief Chuck Harmon said Wednesday.
"I really think our schools need the resources to deal with these types of children and situations," Harmon said at a news conference.
"It's not an appropriate response for us. ... It seems to me there should be some interaction with that child before all this happened to take care of some behavioral issues, and we're probably a last resort in that situation."
He also expressed concern about the behavior of his officers during the March 14 incident at Fairmount Park Elementary School.
The arrest was videotaped by school officials and has been broadcast around the world.
"Quite frankly, as a parent of three children myself," he said, "just looking at the video on its face value, it's a little concerning. ... Would I have handled that situation or another police officer handled that situation differently? Probably."
Harmon said, however, that he would not pass judgment on the officers until an investigation is completed in two or three weeks.
The video shows educators struggling to control the kindergarten student as she throws items from desks, rips papers off walls and strikes an assistant principal numerous times. It shows her suddenly sitting quietly in a chair when police officers arrive. It ends with her wailing as officers handcuff her - an image that civic leaders said Thursday was tarnishing St. Petersburg's reputation before the world.
Harmon said he planned to meet with Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox to discuss what measures might be taken during similar situations in the future.
Wilcox expressed frustration at some of the chief's comments, though he said he was anxious to meet with Harmon as early as today.
Wilcox said school employees were in a "last resort" situation when they phoned city police to intervene with the girl. The Pinellas schools police force, which is better trained to deal with schoolchildren, is a small force of about 22 officers and "couldn't get there" in time, Wilcox said.
He said school officials exercised good judgment in calling city police and "made the best decision they could under the circumstances."
The girl and her mother, Inga Akins, were in New York again Thursday as guests of the tabloid television show A Current Affair. The Fox network show aired its fifth piece on the handcuffing.
During the program, Akins disputed a statement by Wilcox that she had pulled the girl out of school last week and was moving out of state.
Wilcox stood by his comments Thursday night, saying Akins had been so clear about leaving the school that officials put an "exit code" on the girl's computer records, signifying she had left the system.
But if she returns, Wilcox said, "We'll welcome her back to her old school."
Also Thursday, a representative of the Rev. Al Sharpton said he and Sharpton will come to St. Petersburg in the next two weeks to conduct their own investigation of the handcuffing and look into claims of similar incidents in Florida.
"We cannot let this thing go by unnoticed," said the Rev. Jarrett Maupin II, the 17-year-old youth director for Sharpton's civil rights organization, the National Action Network.
Earlier Thursday at separate news conferences, two groups representing St. Petersburg's black community weighed in on the episode.
A group of retired black educators, church officials and civic leaders met with Harmon at a local church. Afterward, the group denounced the handcuffing and said police and educators should have found a better way.
"St. Pete just comes out smelling when you look at that picture that's worth a thousand words," said Sevell C. Brown, president of the Florida Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Later, St. Petersburg NAACP president Darryl Rouson denounced the handcuffing as "bone-headed."
"How is it that officers of the law who are trained to talk the weapons from the hands of murderous suspects, talk suicidal people down from bridges and out of situations felt compelled to subdue a 5-year-old with handcuffs?" he said.
Added Rouson: "We're also reminding parents that they, too, bear some responsibility for behavior of children."
Both groups were cautious on the subject of race, which has crept into the debate over the girl's treatment because she is black.
Black leaders noted that Mark Williams - the veteran police officer heard on the video confronting the girl and directing the handcuffing - is black. So is the school's principal and the police sergeant who arrived on the scene later and put an end to talk that the girl be prosecuted.
Rouson described Williams as a respected member of the community and noted the girl had previous problems at school. He said some people cautioned the NAACP to "tread carefully" because Akins had sold the rights to her story to A Current Affair.
"This is a complicated issue," he said.
Harmon gave the most detailed account so far of how police came to be called to the school.
On March 7, a week before the handcuffing, Officer Williams left his business card at Fairmount during a call unrelated to the girl.
The next day, school officials were struggling with disciplining Akins' daughter, Harmon said. They tried to call Akins and the girl's grandmother. They also tried to call Pinellas schools police, he said.
Getting no response, they called city police. But a police supervisor canceled the call, Harmon said, probably concluding the call was not appropriate for police to handle.
In frustration, he said, the school used Williams' business card and called him on his cell phone. Williams responded and spoke to the girl about "good choices, bad choices, that sort of thing," Harmon said. "At some point he did display his handcuffs to her."
He said the department will look closely at the nature of that conversation. If the handcuffs were used to intimidate the girl, he said, "that's against our policy and we don't do that."
On March 14, the day of the taping, the school called city police again after Pinellas schools police could not come.
Williams heard the call, was familiar with the girl and "decided on his own to respond," Harmon said. Williams was with an officer in training. Another unit with two additional officers responded to the call officially, bringing the total to four.
Harmon said he did not know why a police supervisor did not cancel the call, as was done a week earlier.
Williams is the officer heard on the tape saying to the girl before her handcuffing: "You need to calm down. You need to do it now. Okay?"
The chief said his "heart goes out" to the girl.
"We need to do what we can as a community to help her," he said. "We need to look at how do we change that behavior on the front end so we never get to this point again."
Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.
[Last modified April 29, 2005, 00:58:35]
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