There was screaming, cursing, and a head slammed against the wall. A public defender called it “egregious.” Another called it “horrific.”
In a video that aired Thursday on Tucson’s KOLD news station, a white sheriff’s deputy is seen tackling and wrestling a black teen in foster care. The teen — an amputee with no arms or legs — repeatedly screams at the police officer to get off of him.
The sheriff’s deputy holds the boy in a headlock on the ground and curses in his face before arresting him for disorderly conduct. The deputy then screams at the teenager who was recording the scene, handcuffs him, and slams his head against the wall.
It was an extraordinary amount of violence against two defenseless youths — all in the span of eight minutes. The incident happened in September, but KOLD didn’t get a hold of the footage until this week.
According to KOLD, the Pima County sheriff’s deputy was responding to a call at a Tucson group home about a disruptive teenager. Yet his angry and violent response was striking, especially because the teens seemed to be behaving like, well, teenagers.
The sheriff’s office told KOLD that it is investigating the officer’s conduct, and state prosecutors have since dropped charges against the two youths. The incident is all too similar to other videos that have gone viral, showing police officers use excessive force against black men. But there was something particularly disturbing about watching a deputy mistreat such vulnerable children. As if they hadn’t been through enough.
Children in group homes have already experienced enough trauma
One of the most remarkable things about the latest incident was where it happened: in a group home for boys in foster care. These residential facilities are supposed to be safe places for some of country’s most troubled youths.
More than 23,000 children in the foster care system live in group homes like the one in Tucson. And they are far more likely to have experienced multiple forms of trauma in their short lives, according to research by the Casey Family Programs. For example, 55 percent have been physically abused, 40 percent have been sexually abused, 68 percent have been emotionally abused, and 62 percent have suffered a traumatic loss. A majority have mental health problems or physical disabilities.
Few details about the Tucson teenager have been released to protect his privacy, but KOLD said he was in a group home because he was abandoned by his parents. Little is also known about the group home where the incident took place, and there is no reason to believe there was abuse or neglect by caregivers.
However, reports of abuse and neglect of children in group homes are common. In Illinois, for example, a 2016 investigation by the Chicago Tribune described state taxpayer-funded group homes as “a system where caregivers often failed to provide basic care while regulators cloaked harm and death with secrecy and silence.”
The newspaper uncovered 1,311 cases of documented injuries, hundreds of which were not reported by the Illinois Department of Human Services. Residents were often deprived of food, forced to wear dirty clothing and restrained with duct tape.
The investigation prompted Congress to request and audit of group homes by the US Department of Health and Human Services. In 2018, the agency released its report, which found that children in these settings “often experienced serious injuries and medical conditions that resulted in emergency room visits.” The audits also revealed that 99 percent of those critical injuries were not reported to the appropriate law enforcement or state agencies, as required by law.
Foster children who live in residential facilities are already traumatized and at high-risk of abuse. These are children that need police protection, not mistreatment. Black young people, in particular, are already overexposed to police violence.
Exposure to police violence can have harmful effects on black and brown children
Children of color, like the two teens in Tucson, often have traumatizing encounters with police officers from a young age.
In recent years, a number of media stories have called attention to the ways that black children in particular are exposed to police violence, whether they are directly confronted by police, live in communities where police violence has occurred, or witness excessive force from law enforcement.
And research has shown that adults often see both black boys and girls as older, more deserving of suspicion, and less innocent than white children. This suggests that when it comes to policing incidents where black children are present, authority figures may not see these children as bystanders needing protection. In some cases, black children may instead be seen as suspects themselves, and are denied the presumption of innocence given to other children.
Witnessing police violence also affects their ability to trust officers and very likely shifts how they perceive themselves in many cases.
In April, a Florida sheriff’s deputy was been placed on restricted duty after a video showing him slamming a black teenager’s head into the ground and punching him went viral, fueling calls for the officer to be fired. Deputy Christopher Krickovich and another officer had approached a large group of high school students in a shopping center in Tamarac, and one of the boys was arrested for trespassing, according to a report submitted by the officers. Video footage taken by students at the scene shows the boy in handcuffs and a nearby officer push another boy back. As the boy moves, he is pepper-sprayed in the face. When the teen begins to walk away, the officer pulls him to the ground.
This kind of police aggression is all too similar to the deputy’s response in Tucson. Viral videos like these have done a lot to raise public awareness of the violence that black boys and men deal with on a regular basis. It’s just not enough to stop it from happening again.