Michael Ryan

OP police say there’s more to girl’s finger gun arrest. Did we jump to conclusions?

Outrage was swift and sweeping after The Star reported last week that a 13-year-old Overland Park girl had been arrested and charged with a felony for pointing her fingers, gun-like, at fellow Westridge Middle School students.

I, too, couldn’t help thinking it must have been an overly precipitous act by the officer. A 13-year-old girl caused that much fear? With nothing more than her fingers? Really?

Really, assures Overland Park Police Chief Frank Donchez Jr., whose school resource officer assigned to Westridge was the one who decided the girl needed arresting last month.

Though hamstrung by what school and law enforcement authorities can say about a juvenile case — which is next to nothing — Donchez vigorously defends his officer’s actions in the face of strong public backlash.

“My officer did his job,” Donchez says. “There are certain things we can’t say. Things that we know, but we just can’t say. I guess what’s most frustrating from my end is, they only know what was in your newspaper article. The comments and the criticisms are a knee-jerk reaction without knowing what we know and what went into that decision.”

So, what did go into the decision?

After the girl’s gestures — which only occurred after a fellow student asked her which five classmates she’d shoot (and she included herself) — concerns were expressed to the school district. Donchez notes that Principal Jeremy McDonnell performed his own investigation, then requested the school resource officer look into it himself. Such an investigation, Donchez says, includes interviews with all parties and consideration of past behavior.

After that, the chief is careful to point out, the girl was led to the police car by the principal, handcuffed only at that point per protocol and not subjected to a “perp walk.”

Following all that, Donchez says, the Johnson County District Attorney’s Office made its own independent decision to file charges in juvenile court.

Since juvenile cases are shrouded in secrecy, at this point the public has little choice but to trust authorities’ actions — albeit conditionally and temporarily. Ultimately, whether the arrest was built on a solid foundation will be hashed out in court. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, and though the outcome of the case technically will be private, it will come out.

If it turns out the arrest was either heedless or needless, then both this officer and overall school resource officer procedures will be in serious question, to say the least.

It’s not in Americans’ or journalists’ nature to trust government, and for very good reasons. Distrust of government is even enshrined in our founding documents. So sitting back and trusting in this arrest is not easy.

“I totally get that,” Donchez says. “But that’s also why we have a court system. That’s why people are either convicted or acquitted, because there’s a system in place that reviews the actions of the police.

“My frustration is, my officer and my department know a whole lot more facts than the general public knows or that will ever be in the newspaper — not only in this case but in a whole lot of cases. I hope that people keep that in mind.

“But I know they won’t.”

Indeed, when it comes to reacting to things, we’ve got a hair trigger in the age of the internet. Reacting too quickly and too robustly, often to things we really don’t know about, has become our national pastime.

Of course, in the age of school shootings, authorities are also accused of acting too slowly. In fact, the Shawnee Mission School District was sued in 2017 for allegedly failing to crack down on a juvenile accused of sexual misconduct at Westridge Middle itself.

“In this environment, I really don’t think that we can be too careful,” Donchez says. “In this day and age, with the level of violence we’re seeing in our schools, it’s incumbent on me and my department to ensure that the next Columbine doesn’t happen in Overland Park.”

Understood, though I’ll politely disagree with the chief on one point: We absolutely can be too careful. We can arrest guileless children hastily, unnecessarily and even wrongfully.

We just don’t know yet if that’s the case here.

We sometimes wish police would hold their fire more often.

Perhaps we should do the same.

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The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.
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