Reformers hope a law taking effect in late December will keep more young children out of the justice system.
Last week, when a video went viral of three white Syracuse police officers forcing an 8-year-old Black boy into the back of a squad car, the condemnation was swift. His alleged offense? Stealing a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Quickly after the April 17 incident was broadcast, messages spread from Buffalo Bills Hall of Famer Thurman Thomas — who retweeted video footage asking “Syracuse police really? Over a bag of chips? He’s just a kid,” — to a pronouncement by the governor of New York.
Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) led her live appearance in Syracuse Wednesday acknowledging “that I’m here on a day when this community is really hurting. There’s a lot of pain out there and we’ve all seen the video of an 8-year-old being detained by the police.”
The governor described the weeping child in police custody over a bag of chips, adding: “And let me just say as a mother, that was a heart-wrenching video to witness.”
“That hits you right here,” she continued. “Many of us are parents and you can’t help but imagine the fear in that child as he had to endure that experience.”
Outrage over the boy’s treatment continued over the weekend. On Saturday, local residents and area activists held two protest rallies in front of the Syracuse Police Department, waving signs that read “When Does a Child Go From Cute To Dangerous?” and “It Could Have Been Us!!”
Protester Hasan Bloodworth, co-founder of the activist group Rebirth SYR, was quoted in CNY Central’s coverage of the event, stating: “Instead of demonizing these kids, instead of traumatizing these kids, instead of embarrassing and humiliating these kids, we should uplift them and see what the real problem is.”
Days before the protest, a joint statement was released by Black Lives Matter Syracuse and the Syracuse Police Abolition and Radical Revisioning Coalition, stating, “We cannot continue to live in a City where these types of incidents are acceptable.”
The groups expressed “anger and frustration” at the police who appear to have aggressively detained the boy over a minor transgression. They also criticized Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh’s response, which appeared to describe the incident as appropriate because no handcuffs were used, and the boy was ultimately returned home by the officers with no further action taken.
“This is not the response Syracuse deserves and shows a complete lack of understanding as to the trauma and harm incidents like this cause,” the activist groups stated.
‘Help us combat this issue’
The Easter Sunday incident captured on video by a bystander shows three officers responding to the report of theft from a convenience store. More than 6 million people on social media have watched the video of the boy surrounded by police officers and sobbing. One officer secures the boy firmly by his upper arms, leading him into the back of the cop car.
“We are looking at, do we have a better co-response with clinicians who are better prepared to deal with juveniles that are in distress?” Lt. Matthew Malinowski told local reporters. “If there is someone better at handling these young juveniles, we’re inviting you to join our team and help us combat this issue.”
At a Thursday press conference where an officer’s body camera footage was shared, Walsh and Police Chief Joe Cecile defended the department’s response.
“Folks, this is community policing 101,” Cecile said. “It’s what we ask our officers to do. Know your territory and whenever possible, get out of your patrol car and engage.”
New juvenile justice laws
A law passed last year, authored by state Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D), prohibits the use of “shackles, handcuffs, irons and straitjackets” on children appearing before the New York family courts.
Another juvenile justice reform law, taking effect Dec. 29, focuses on providing better treatment of New York’s youngest residents accused of crimes. For decades, the state has allowed the arrest of children as young as age 7. The new law will better protect children younger than 12 years old from law enforcement actions, a move long pushed by advocates who say the state’s juvenile justice system is more likely to traumatize than rehabilitate children at that young age.
Authored by Sen. Bailey and Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D), the legislation signed into law late last year raises the age required to incarcerate a child in a secure detention facility from the previous 10 to 13 years old. Under its terms, police can still respond to 911 calls about children younger than 12 who may have committed crimes. But they can no longer be fingerprinted, or face probation and delinquency cases in Family Court. Instead, local community-based agencies will provide services that may be needed, including mental health and behavioral health care. The new law also requires training for law enforcement on how to implement these practices.
Questions remain about what happened last week in Syracuse: Would the new law taking effect this year prevent anything like this from ever happening again? And if it didn’t, what should have happened instead?
As disturbing as the video images were to viewers, based on what is known so far about the Syracuse incident, the police appear to have acted within their legal rights and discretion under The Family Court Act, justice experts told The Imprint. But it was unclear how the law taking effect next year might or might not have changed circumstances for the 8-year-old boy.
Harmony Guo, a spokesperson for Sen. Bailey — who represents constituents in Bronx and Westchester counties — noted the laws his office has pushed for as a means to better protect young children from overly harsh treatment by justice officials.
And in a statement sent to The Imprint Monday, Guo referred to the police officers’ response to the boy in Syracuse noting: “It is always concerning when a young person is placed in police custody and our office continues to be supportive of juvenile justice reforms that reduce future justice involvement.”
Meanwhile, the boy’s father, Anthony Weah, told CNYCentral that his son has been “quieter” since the incident occurred, and he noted concern for other children as well.
“You can’t treat him like that because of a bag of chips like he killed somebody. He’s not a criminal,” Weah said. “Tomorrow, they will do the same thing to another kid. So, today I’m more concerned about kids in general.”
In her address last week, Gov. Hochul vowed the incident would not go unaddressed. She noted that “Black and brown communities all over our state and all of our country,” are “not as shocked as others are to see this because they’ve been conditioned to different kinds of treatment from policing agencies and others throughout their lives.”
Hochul said officials need to “make sure that we do protect our children, that they’re handled in a different way when it comes to encounters with law enforcement. I think that’s what all of our expectations will continue to be.”
Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.