Kids' Case Spurs Debate Over Crime, Punishment

Crime Scenes

July 22, 2009|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,

Here are two consistent complaints about Baltimore and why it seems to be a city out of control: Punishment rarely fits the crime, and parents don't take responsibility for their children.

So what do you do when three boys, ages 7, 8 and 11, steal a scooter, a wagon and bicycle parts from a neighbor's yard in North Baltimore's Medfield community?

The angry victim called police, who promptly came, handcuffed the youngest boy, got him to roll on his friends and then handcuffed them as well. The officer marched all three to the back of a wagon and took them to juvenile jail, where they stayed for at least two hours Friday before being retrieved by their parents.

Was the punishment too harsh and done without giving the parents a chance to act - as the mother of one boy complains - or just right to teach a valuable lesson about right and wrong in the absence of proper oversight, as police and some city residents suggest?

Toya Goodson said a second-grader is too young to be arrested for such a transgression. She readily acknowledges that her son, Ayize Massey, joined older kids and stole the man's scooter from Newport Street, then dropped it as the owner chased him to the boy's home on Falls Road and called 911. The officer came, and Goodson said the man "pointed to my son, [saying,] 'That's the one right here.'

"I said, 'Let's talk to my son,' " the mother added. "The officer said, 'I don't have time, I'm locking him up.' "

Goodson said Ayize, in tears, gave up his friends, was put in metal handcuffs and taken away in the wagon to the Juvenile Detention Center on Gay Street. She said her son is now grounded, has apologized to the man and is writing him a letter. "I'm not raising my son to steal," Goodson said. "But he's still a child, and we've all done things that we thought we could get away with. Our job as parents is to teach them. I have no problem with disciplinary action, but I think this could've been handled differently."

Baltimore police expressed little sympathy, other than to note that officers have few options in dealing with such a scenario. "Our position is that we have to hold people accountable," said the department's chief spokesman, Anthony Guglielmi. "In this case, we had a confession from a group of juveniles who stole property. It showed the kids the criminal justice system."

The spokesman noted that one of the kids told a television station that he would "never steal again." Said Guglielmi, "That is exactly what we want to hear." He said none of the children was charged criminally, but instead they were put into a program to help young offenders.

Two years ago, Mayor Sheila Dixon apologized to the family of a 7-year-old boy who was arrested after an officer saw him riding a dirt bike on a sidewalk. She called the bust "not consistent with my philosophy on community policing" and "a bad choice" on the part of the officer.

Dixon said Tuesday that in the earlier case, the boy "was on his own bike, he wasn't stealing." She refused to offer an apology in the present case, but she said that given that the youngsters' parents were home, "I might've handled it a little differently" and written the report inside the house instead of taking the children to jail.

Guglielmi said that in the 2007 case, the boy was arrested by a sergeant after the mother had complained about a warning her son had received from another police officer; as a result, the spokesman said, the child's arrest was alleged to have been what he called a "retaliation attempt." (The family has sued the city for $40 million, and the case is pending.)

"Things leading up to that arrest were very different" from what happened Friday, Guglielmi said.

The spokesman said the kids perhaps "learned a valuable lesson," not unlike the one he learned one day when he defied police in his hometown in Connecticut by playing hockey with his friends in the street. After repeated warnings, officers handcuffed him and took him in.

He was 6 years old.

Guglielmi said he wasn't criminally charged but afterward, "I didn't go near the street."

His parents had to collect him from the authorities. "The Italian form of discipline is much worse," Guglielmi said when asked about how his parents had reacted, before abruptly stopping in midsentence. He would only add, "It was a good learning experience for me."

In keeping with the mantra from the mayor and the police commissioner, who continually preach responsibility, the police spokesman said, "My parents never yelled at the police. It was my fault."

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