Police-supervised child beating should make us ill

From the Editorial Board

Washington law spells out unreasonable use of force on children, and police are sometimes asked (or take it upon themselves) to explain it to parents.
Washington law spells out unreasonable use of force on children, and police are sometimes asked (or take it upon themselves) to explain it to parents. KRT illustration

In a perfect world, police officers would be known mostly for the good work they do de-escalating conflict and resolving domestic problems. It is the routine stuff that fills their shifts, the duty that too often goes unheralded.

In this world, the motto “to serve and protect” would first call to mind cops using their skills as peacemakers, helping keep people from harming themselves or others.

But because our world is far from perfect, society has also conferred police with the heavy responsibility to be arbiters and agents of the righteous use of force. Sometimes, when households spin out of control, that role includes affirming physical discipline as a lawful option for parents.

This helps explain why a Florida dad called a sheriff’s deputy to supervise while he spanked his 12-year-old daughter with a paddle. Though the case made national news in 2015, it’s not unusual for parents to be unsure of their right to use moderate force on their children, despite it being legal in all 50 states. Nor is it unusual for police to provide guidance.

It also explains why Tacoma officers would carry copies of Washington’s child abuse law in their patrol cars. Cops should feel free to give neutral information — and, above all, a clear warning not to cross the line — to parents struggling to cope with an unmanageable, perhaps dangerous child.

What it doesn’t explain is why two Tacoma officers instructed a 54-year-old woman how to use a belt on her 9-year-old, developmentally disabled grandson. It doesn’t explain why they stood by while she lashed him, over and over, leaving marks later discovered by hospital staff.

The city has responded properly to the chilling June 5 incident. The officers are under criminal investigation and have been placed on administrative leave.

This was the only possible course of action after the woman claimed the officers coerced her into beating the boy, and that they told her “you have to do this.”

The officers contend their role was advisory, that the woman was in way over her head and that they merely explained her right to discipline the boy. The police report describes him as “a destructive and homicidal 9-year-old juvenile.” Police had been called to the residence to deal with him before.

Both sides agree the purpose of the beating was to establish the woman’s authority after the boy ransacked the home during a tantrum, then sat menacingly on the couch.

The woman adopted him when he was a toddler; she has no criminal record and claimed never to have used physical force on him previously.

“I will never forgive myself,” she told News Tribune reporter Sean Robinson. “It was absolutely the worst day of my life.”

If the woman’s story is to be believed, it could do violence to some people’s faith in local law enforcement.

Even if one takes the police report at face value and looks at the incident in a light most favorable to the officers, some unsettling questions emerge.

Why would they chaperone the extended beating of a child who had calmed down, after any immediate threat had passed? Why would they condone lashing a child they knew was the victim of fetal alcohol syndrome and had the mental capacity of a child half his age?

According to the Washington law that spells out unreasonable use of force against children — the same law that one of these cops said he distributes to parents — it’s important for adults to consider “the age, size and condition of the child.” Wouldn’t mental capacity be considered a relevant condition?

In the end, the boy was temporarily removed from his home for a mental-health commitment anyway. Had police called the ambulance immediately, it would have saved everyone severe pain and stress, and spared the woman ongoing fear of retaliation at the hands of her son.

We hope this was nothing more than a one-off overreaction, a case of poor judgment by two lawmen with a strong parental-rights orientation. Nothing points to a systemic problem in the Tacoma Police Department, though perhaps some training could stem from this incident.

It can’t hurt for cops to remember that even well-meaning advice, when issued by an authority figure wearing a gun and badge, might come across as an order.

Police also should consider sharing copies of effective parental discipline guidelines by the American Academy of Pediatrics. It recommends parents develop methods other than spanking in response to undesired behavior.

Nobody wants to believe Tacoma is the kind of city where public safety officers would stand and watch, if not outright bully, a mother to beat her mentally impaired child into submission.

There’s something very wrong with this picture — even in our innately imperfect world.