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Sticks and Stones

Children’s Advocates Come Down On Police For Treatment of Developmentally Disabled Boy

Jefferson Jackson Steele
EXCESSIVE FORCE?: Leon Henry (left) is concerned that a Baltimore Police officer was too harsh in his treatment of Duane (right).

By Christina Royster-Hemby | Posted 4/12/2006

“Your mother doesn’t give a shit about you, so that’s why you act like this.” A comment to that effect was allegedly made by a member of the Baltimore Police Department to an 11-year-old boy recently, after the child threw a rock at the police officer’s car. The comment has the child’s guardian, local children’s advocates, and school officials all worked up.

It would have been inappropriate for a police officer to make that kind of comment to any kid, advocates say, especially considering that fact that officers are trained to defuse volatile situations, not make them more hostile. But to make matters worse, Duane, the 11-year-old in question, is not your everyday kid. He is mentally challenged, has an IQ of less than 70, and, when the incident happened, was standing outside the Children’s Guild, a nonprofit school in Northeast Baltimore for special-needs children, to which police are often called when help is needed with kids who have disciplinary problems.

On March 27, according to a summary of the incident written by Duane’s therapist, who witnessed the scene (the summary was given to City Paper by the child’s guardian, Leon Henry), Duane ran outside the school building on McClean Boulevard and headed toward the street. Several minutes later, he came back to the building and started throwing rocks and sticks at windows and school personnel. School counselors, the therapist wrote in her summary, tried to calm him down; as that was happening, a police car drove by, and Duane threw a rock at it as well.

According to the therapist’s summary, two officers got out of the car. “The officer that was driving the car grabbed Duane and put him against the car,” it says. “He asked him several times why he had thrown the rock. While talking to him, the officer was cursing frequently, using the word ‘fuck’ several times.” The summary notes that Duane cursed back at the officers; it says he was “not cooperative” and “very disrespectful” to the police, who responded by handcuffing him, putting him in the police car, and continuing “to yell at him.” The comment about Duane’s mother not giving a shit about him was made at this point, according to the therapist’s account.

The Baltimore Police Department incident report confirms that on March 27, at 10:55 a.m., Officer Eric Leitch was on “routine uniformed patrol” in the 6800 block of McClean Boulevard, where the Children’s Guild is located, when a “small rock” thrown by a suspect hit his 2001 Ford Crown Victoria patrol car and chipped the paint on its hood. The suspect—Duane—was arrested for the crime of “destruction of property,” according to the report. He was transported to the city Juvenile Detention Center and charged accordingly.

At the Juvenile Detention Center, though, it was clear to staff that Duane did not need to be put in custody. His mug shot was taken and he was sent home with Henry, his guardian.

“This youth was released because he was already receiving services in the community, there was no need to detain him or take this any further than what was done,” says Maryland Department of Juvenile Services spokesman Edward Hopkins. “While we don’t always arbitrarily release children back, in this situation they evaluated him, and obviously they saw from the onset that he was having some cognitive challenges. And while he violated a law, it was not necessary to take this all the way through to adjudication.”

Henry says that when he picked Duane up from the center, “there was a young lady who had on a state correctional uniform. She was the one who was giving me the paperwork to sign. And once they saw Duane and looked at him, she said to me, ‘What is he doing here in the first place?’”

That’s what Henry, who also happens to be director of the Maryland Children’s Action Network, wonders, too. He says Duane has periodic fits of anger and that it’s not atypical for him to act out. He has “a lot of psychiatric diagnoses and may be on the autism spectrum,” Henry says, so when he does have an episode, counselors try to talk him through them. Henry says that’s what Duane’s therapist and counselors were doing outside the school when the police car drove by. Their attempts to calm him down were thwarted when police intervened.

Children’s Guild officials cannot comment on Duane’s specific incident, they say, because he is a minor. However, the school’s president, Andrew Ross, sent City Paper a statement saying that “a lot of kids” at the school have anger issues and that the staff members have a protocol they follow whenever an outburst occurs.

“Historically, the police have been very supportive of the Children’s Guild,” Ross’ statement says. “Any situation we’ve called them for, they’ve come and they’ve been helpful. We believe this to be a very isolated incident.”

Police spokeswoman Nicole Monroe confirms that police are investigating Duane’s arrest, so she cannot speak about the March 27 incident. But she does say that rock throwing is a hazard.

“If a police officer is driving down the street and a person throws a rock at his car, the officer’s going to investigate,” she says. “At that point it’s a public-safety issue.”

Henry does not dispute that what Duane did was wrong, but he thinks the police were insensitive to the boy’s situation.

“On some level, Duane has to understand that he can’t do these things, and that there are consequences,” he says. Henry wonders, however, why they didn’t use more tact in dealing with an emotionally troubled child. “Anybody who talks to him for a few seconds should be able to pick up that he’s a special-needs kid,” he says. “This could have been a teachable moment for Duane. The cop could have gotten out of the car and laid him out without cursing—promised to call me or somehow given Duane a consequence that met his developmental needs.”

One of the things that troubles Henry most is the comment the officer made to Duane about his mother, which cut the child deeply. Duane’s mother, who has a substance-abuse problem, did neglect him. In his 11 years, he has lived with both physical and emotional abuse, Henry says.

“It seemed from the comment that the officer made about Duane’s mother that he had a preconceived notion about who he was,” Henry says. “To say that to a kid in front of staff, you have to think that this kid has no advocates, power, or access to anything. That nobody is going to fight for him when he’s treated unjustly.”

But that’s not the case. As director of the Maryland Children’s Action Network, Henry is the liaison between a number of coalitions that advocate for kids in the city, and he has filed complaints with both the police department’s internal affairs division and the Civilian Review Board for the Baltimore Community Relations Commission.

Officer Leitch could not be reached for comment on this matter because of the police department’s investigation of the incident. But Henry says he talked to the officer over the phone shortly after the incident happened.

“Do you know what kind of school this is?” Henry says he asked the officer. He says Leitch’s response was ,“‘Yes, [but] you have no idea what we go through dealing with those kids.’”

When asked why the officer didn’t just let Children’s Guild staff deal with the matter—especially since it happened on school grounds—Henry says the officer responded by saying, “‘I’m not going to just sit there and say yes sir, and no sir, while someone’s cussing me out.’”

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