San Diego County sheriff’s deputies recently left a 12-year-old girl stranded after arresting her father’s friend on a routine traffic stop, and the subsequent complaint from her family has prompted the Sheriff’s Department to create a formal policy on how to better handle such situations.
Heather Alexander, suffering from chicken pox and a high fever, was left alone in a shopping center parking lot in Fallbrook on the morning of June 9 after two deputies made a traffic arrest of Gordon Hopkins of Fallbrook, the man driving her to her mother’s home.
With no money and 5 miles from home, the girl wandered around the mall until she “gained enough composure” to call her father, Greg, collect from a pay phone and ask for a ride, her grandfather, George L. Alexander, said.
‘Both Outraged and Shocked’
“As a parent and a citizen, I am both outraged and shocked by the action of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department for showing complete disregard for the safety of a little girl,” he said.
“I believe the first duty of every officer is the protection of life, and I believe this duty was grossly ignored.”
The complaint is the second of its kind to surface recently against the Sheriff’s Department. John P. O’Donnell, a paraplegic, filed a $200,000 lawsuit in September against the county after deputies allegedly abandoned him alongside a road in San Marcos.
In the Heather Alexander case, her grandfather, who lives in Lakewood, Calif., complained in June about the situation and then was notified in writing in August that a sheriff’s internal investigation had been completed.
“The deputies’ actions were lawful and proper; therefore, the deputies have been exonerated of any wrongdoing,” the letter says.
“We regret any inconvenience we may have caused your granddaughter in this incident and would like to assure you it is our sincere desire to provide every citizen in the community of Fallbrook with the highest level of professional law enforcement.”
‘We Have an Obligation’
However, Assistant Sheriff Jack Drown acknowledged in an interview Wednesday that the two unidentified deputies “did not make suitable arrangements” for the girl when they drove off with her adult supervisor and impounded his car.
“I agree with her grandfather’s complaint,” Drown said. “We have an obligation to ensure that a youngster like that is adequately cared for in terms of releasing her back to her parents.”
But he said his department has had no written policy for deputies confronted with similar situations. He said some deputies take the children to the patrol station or to the Hillcrest Receiving Home, and others drive them home or wait at the scene until a responsible family member arrives.
He said he has now asked all of the station commanders to draft recommendations for formal guidelines. “It’s something we still need to shore up a bit to prevent from reoccurring,” he said.
In defense of the deputies, Drown said, they felt satisfied that the girl was in no danger at the mall.
“The girl didn’t indicate this was a problem for her, so the deputies didn’t really have any particular concern about it,” he said. “One of the deputies did come back and check on her, but she was already gone.”
Her grandfather said Heather was suffering from chicken pox and a high fever when the deputies stopped the car and arrested Hopkins on outstanding traffic warrants. He said she stood alone and scared as they drove away without her, even after Hopkins begged the deputies not to leave her by herself.
“She was frightened,” Alexander said. “She was frightened just from when the cops made the arrest. And then these guys went and turned their back on my granddaughter. That’s what’s so terrible about this.”