Fla. LEO who arrested 6-year-old students fired

State attorney says children will not be prosecuted


Grace Toohey and Leslie Postal
Orlando Sentinel 

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando Police Department Officer Dennis Turner, who arrested two 6-year-old students at a charter school last week — sparking national outrage — has been fired, Chief Orlando Rolon said at a news conference Monday evening.

Rolon said the arrests made him “sick to (his) stomach.” He apologized to the children and their families.

“I can only imagine how traumatic this was for everyone involved,” he said.

Earlier in the day, State Attorney Aramis Ayala confirmed that her office would not prosecute the children and was working to clear their records.

“I refuse to knowingly play any role in the school-to-prison pipeline,” Ayala said. “ … The criminal process ends here today. The children will not be prosecuted.”

Ayala confirmed the students had been at Lucious and Emma Nixon Academy, a charter school on Mercy Drive, when Turner arrested them. She said she had spoken to Rolon, who also did not want the children to face prosecution for the misdemeanor battery charge they each faced.

Ayala said her office halted the booking process for the 6-year-old boy as he was being arrested Thursday, before he made it to the juvenile detention center. However, the 6-year-old girl’s grandmother told WKMG-TV that she was taken to a juvenile facility.

Meralyn Kirkland told the TV station that her granddaughter was arrested after she had a tantrum at school, which she said can be a result of the child’s sleep disorder. Kirkland said her granddaughter was handcuffed, transported to the juvenile justice center, and her mugshot and fingerprints were taken.

Ayala said she was unable to confirm those details Monday.

The Orlando Police Department initially said one of the children was 6 and the other was 8, but issued a correction Monday that both children were 6.

Turner had earlier been suspended as OPD launched an investigation into the arrests, which city officials said went against the agency’s policy that all arrests of children younger than 12 require a watch commander’s approval.

Turner did not have approval for the two arrests, the agency said.

Turner was a member of the Orlando Police Department’s Reserve Unit, which is made up of retired OPD officers who sign up to work certain extra-duty assignments.

As the case attracted national attention — and widespread condemnation — Mayor Buddy Dyer took to Twitter to respond to people upset about the arrests.

“Our top priority as a city is the safety and well-being of our city’s children. OPD has launched an internal investigation into this and the officer has been suspended pending the outcome of that investigation,” a tweet posted to the mayor’s official Twitter account said.

The city’s records department in response to a request by the Orlando Sentinel said it could take at least two weeks to produce public records on Turner’s disciplinary history.

Ayala said arresting children as young as 6 is unfortunately not unheard of, noting that Florida remains one of the states with the highest number of child arrests, and that the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which includes Orange and Osceola counties, led the state in youth arrests in 2018.

“I’m hoping we are coming to an end,” Ayala said. “This is not a reflection of the children, but more a reflection of a broken system that is in need of reform.”

But arrests of children as young as 6 has become much more infrequent, and rightly so, said Katherine Puzone, an associate professor at Barry University’s law school, who runs a juvenile defense clinic in which she and her students represent Orange County children who have been arrested.

Puzone, who is in Orange’s juvenile court almost daily, said she hasn’t seen a child that young arrested in at least a decade, and the case she remembers involved a 9-year-old who brought a gun to school. Arrests of students in Orange schools have declined in the last decade, particularly on minor charges, making the arrests last week all the more unusual, she said.

“I would wonder what happened at the school that they even let the police get involved with a 6-year-old,” she said. “That was a 6-year-old acting out.”

Police officers at elementary schools should be “protecting the kids from someone coming on campus, not arresting the kids,” she added.

But with more officers in schools — as was mandated statewide by legislation passed after the Stoneman Douglas High School mass shooting in Parkland — puts more children at risk for arrest, especially children of color, said Orlando political consultant and activist Jason Henry.

He said he wishes there was more nuance to the conversation about school safety, as studies have shown that black students are more likely to be arrested in school compared to their peers of other races and ethnicities. At least one of the two 6-year-olds arrested in this recent case was black.

“It’s unfortunate that these are things that you have to think about while navigating a public school,” Henry said, noting that he has a 6- and a 9-year-old in an Orlando-area public school. “Little black girls and teenage black girls, when they do have outbursts, it’s looked upon as aggression.”

Outbursts or disciplinary issues are going to happen, but there are de-escalation techniques that officers and educators can use that do not engage the criminal justice system, said Christian Minor, the executive director of the Florida Juvenile Justice Association, which provides pre-delinquent services and juvenile justice advocacy across the state.

“The long overarching implications of placing a child in handcuffs in front of their peers can have devastating effects on a child’s development,” Minor said. “This is a very sad situation that could have been dealt with differently.”

Puzone echoed Minor, noting that, even with the charges dismissed, the damage from the arrest will not go away.

“I don’t think you can undo it,” she said.

Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy is a charter school — a public school run by a private group — that was granted a contract to open in Orange County in 2016. A woman who answered the phone at the school Monday responded to a request to speak to the principal by saying, “Thank you for your call. No comment.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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