Law enforcement officers brutalize and criminalize children, including kindergarteners, teenagers, and all ages in between. Just this month in Kenosha, Wisconsin, an off-duty police officer appeared to place his knee on a middle school student’s neck. And, in Rutherford County, Tennessee, four Black school girls, among other children, were arrested for not stopping young boys from fighting, demonstrating quite clearly that Black children have been arrested and jailed for crimes that don’t even exist. These arrests reflect the criminalization of youth in the starkest of ways, particularly that of Black children — who do not get the same presumption of innocence that white children receive.
The widely-publicized arrests of 11 total children in Rutherford County are just the tip of the iceberg. In that county alone, law enforcement officials have spent decades illegally detaining thousands of children. And that is not all.
For years, police officers have also handcuffed young children across the country in alarming circumstances. Some children have even been attacked by law enforcement, arrested, charged, and brought in front of a judge for normal childhood behavior.
In fact, between 2013 and 2017, more than 30,000 children under the age of 10 were arrested. Black children in particular have been subject to disparate arrest rates, and LGBTQ+ youth of color also experience disproportionate criminalization. Also, just last October, investigative reporting revealed troubling accounts of police nationwide using force against young, disproportionately Black children, including kids as young as six.
The harrowing incidents below offer a deeper glimpse into the punitive and barbaric reality youth in the United States face — one in which law enforcement officers treat them as criminal suspects, rather than children.
In North Carolina, a six-year-old was arrested in 2021, served with papers, and brought in front of a judge for the “crime” of picking a tulip at a bus stop. The child, like most children, reportedly had difficulty paying attention during the subsequent legal proceeding. The child’s lawyer then gave him a coloring book and crayons during his time at juvenile court.
The judge dismissed the child’s case upon learning that the reason this six-year-old was in front of him was because the child’s mother was unable to make the intake meeting.
It isn’t uncommon to see desks in schools across the country littered with doodling and drawings done in pen, pencil, or markers. Children draw, and, sometimes, they draw on their classroom desks, much like scores of children across the country doodle on walls or furniture in their homes.
In New York City in 2010, police arrested and placed a 12-year-old girl in metal handcuffs for drawing on her school desk. It reportedly traumatized this girl so much that she vomited after the fact. This child is not an outlier, as researchers have found that youth who have more frequent interactions with law enforcement experience post-traumatic stress.
In 2020, a police officer in Orlando, Florida, responded to a school incident involving a six-year-old girl, and the officer arrested her. Body camera footage shows the six-year-old girl saying, “Please let me go,” while in tears.
The six-year-old was charged with misdemeanor battery, though these charges were not pursued. The associated police report claims that the child kicked and punched school personnel, though information about what motivated the child to do so is lacking. The police report further alleges that a school staffer wanted to press charges against the girl, claiming they would testify in court. But a spokesperson for the school said none of that is true, that they never wanted to press charges against children — “and certainly did not want the girl arrested.”
In January 2021, police responded to a call citing “family trouble” in Rochester, New York, and an officer encountered a distressed nine-year-old in the snow. Officers grappled with this child, took her to the ground, handcuffed her, and then placed her in a police vehicle. An officer then pepper-sprayed her because the child did not place her feet inside the vehicle.
“Please don’t do this to me,” the child said while handcuffed in the back seat. “You did this to yourself,” an officer replied. “It’s burning my eyes,” the girl said after being pepper-sprayed. “That’s the point of pepper spray,” the officer replied. The distinct lack of empathy highlights a particular type of police cruelty — a complete indifference, at best, to the girl’s age.
“You’re acting like a child,” an officer said. “I am a child,” the nine-year-old responded.
And therein lies an exchange that encapsulates so much of what is wrong with these encounters: the underlying perception that children, particularly Black children, should not be acting like kids. There is reason to believe this perception is tied to the assumption that Black girls (and Black boys) are older than they are, which has so often resulted in a lack of empathy accorded to these children, as well as harsher treatment and less protection compared to their white peers. This cannot be divorced from the horrifying pattern of state-sponsored violence being used on Black children.
These incidents offer a small window into a larger national concern. Over the years, police have arrested, hurt, criminalized, and traumatized children. Sometimes, they have done this at the behest of a judge. At other times, they have used their own wide latitude to exert force upon or handcuff children for picking a tulip, for drawing on a school desk, for not putting their feet in cars, and for other innocuous things. Some children are even prosecuted.
These children were handcuffed, alone, often crying or trembling, placed in the back of a police car, unsure of where they were going or when they were going to be released — and this should have struck at the core of these officials. But it did not. This suggests something more profound than mere procedural failings; it speaks to a moral failing that undergirds our criminal-legal system, one that has routinely allowed for punitive measures to be levied against children instead of interventions centered on compassion and understanding.
A system of public safety that permits officers to use violence upon — and indelibly scar — children is clearly counterproductive. Our communities and our children deserve better.