The new policy will also limit overall arrests of juvenile suspects and offer more of them a chance to avoid being charged and entering the criminal justice system.
D.C. Police officers will no longer be allowed to handcuff any suspects under the age of 12, unless they present a danger to themselves or others, according to new guidance issued Tuesday by Police Chief Peter Newsham.
With suspects aged 13 to 17, officers will be given discretion to use handcuffs "based on the severity of the offense and circumstances of the interaction." This change follows a series of controversial incidents involving juveniles last year.
The new policy — effective Tuesday — will also limit overall arrests of juvenile suspects, and offer more of them a chance to avoid being charged and entering the criminal justice system. Speaking to the D.C. Council on Tuesday morning, Newsham said the new policy — which he termed the "best ... in the country" — was drawn from two principles.
"Juveniles don't have the same brain development as adults, and they need to be treated differently particularly when they're getting into interactions with police," he said. "Whenever there is interaction between the police and juveniles, it garners a lot of attention. And if that attention is negative, it chips away at the trust we're trying to build with the community."
Existing policy allowed police officers to handcuff juvenile suspects in almost any case. Last April, a 10-year-old boy was handcuffed and briefly detained after police identified him as a suspect in an armed robbery. Footage of the incident circulated on social media and drew widespread criticism. Attorney General Karl Racine — whose office prosecutes juvenile cases — took the unprecedented step of putting out a statement noting that while the officers acted in accordance with MPD policy, the 10-year-old was "totally innocent."
A similar incident earlier last year involving a group of teenagers outside the Petworth Metro station also cast criticism on D.C. police. After both incidents, Racine said it would review the police department's policies and interactions with suspects under the age of 18.
On Tuesday, Racine praised the police department for crafting the new policy. The approach was developed after reviewing how departments in 31 other cities operate. "Throughout the country the practices vary widely," said Racine. "This was an opportunity to understand the vagaries and set a path."
Racine also said his office would establish a 24-7 phone hotline that officers could call if they need advice on how to handle a juvenile suspect they have detained.
Beyond guidance on handcuffing, Newsham said the new policy would allow more juvenile suspects to be released to parents or guardians, unless there is an immediate threat to public safety. An arrest could still happen, but only after the fact and if an officer requests a warrant. He also said the policy would expand eligibility for diversion programs, so that juveniles suspected of minor offenses can be released without being charged. Officers will get in-person and online training on the new policy, Newsham said.
"Because these incidents receive so much attention, you can really have an impact on the department's reputation if it's not handled properly. That's the type of philosophy we're trying to put into our officers," he said. "If they can avoid [handcuffing or arrests], we're going to try and have them avoid it."
But Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) issued a note of caution, noting that some residents may see this new policy as a step backward for safety in their communities. "One of the biggest complaints we have is that the young people are the ones creating the havoc," she said.
But Newsham said limits on arrests and the use of handcuffs would not mean that juveniles who commit crimes won't be prosecuted, if that's what officials decide is necessary and appropriate.
"Just because there's not a custodial arrest doesn't mean the case won't proceed," he said. "We need to make sure that the behavior doesn't happen again, and this is what this is all about."
Marc Schindler, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute, said the new policy was "good and appropriate," especially given the incidents that prompted the police department to rethink its practices.
"The cases that brought this discussion to the public's attention were outrageous and were examples of police overreacting. I don't think it was an accident that it was young boys of color," he said.
Schindler likened the policy change to a similar one that happened in 2015, when D.C. Superior Court discontinued what had been a long practice of shackling juvenile defendants who appear before judges. He says ending the practice did not make the courts a more dangerous place, nor would handcuffing and arresting fewer juveniles make the city more dangerous.
Speaking after her monthly breakfast with the Council, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser hailed the policy change as one that would help build and repair relations between police and the community.
"The police can't do their job without the community, and the community can't be safe and strong without the police," she said. "So the importance of having a good relationship is critical to public safety."