Photo: Kids
Locked up in custody for two hours: Tree-climbing friends Katy Smith, left, Sam Cannon and Amy Higgins

KHUSHWANT SACHDAVE, Daily Mail (UK), reports:

To the 12-year-old friends planning to build themselves a den, the cherry tree seemed an inviting source of material.

But the afternoon adventure turned into a frightening ordeal for Sam Cannon, Amy Higgins and Katy Smith after they climbed into the 20ft tree - then found themselves hauled into a police station and locked in cells for up to two hours.

Their shoes were removed and mugshots, DNA samples and mouth swabs were taken.

Officers told the children they had been seen damaging the tree which is in a wooded area of public land near their homes.

Questioned by police, the scared friends admitted they had broken some loose branches because they had wanted to build a tree house, but said they did not realise what they had done was wrong.

Officers considered charging the children with criminal damage but eventually decided a reprimand - the equivalent of a caution for juveniles - was sufficient.

Although the reprimand does not amount to court action and the children do not have a criminal record, their details will be kept on file for up to five years.

The parents of the children, who all live in Halesowen, West Midlands, say they are angry with police for treating their children as hardened criminals and accused officers of over-reacting.

The three, who have never been in trouble with the police before, were described as well-behaved and placid by their parents.

Amy’s mother, Jacqueline, said

her daughter was left so traumatised by the police action last month she refused to sleep in her bed for a week.

Miss Higgins, 37, an office manager, added: ‘Amy was scared bucketloads to be locked up in a cell knowing murderers and rapists have been sat in the same cells. The police action was completely unbalanced. These were children playing in a tree.

‘The information taken by the police will be held on record for five years and Amy is worried it could affect her going to college or university.’

Sam’s father, Nicholas, 52, said: ‘The children did not deserve to be treated in the way they were. A simple ticking-off by officers would have been sufficient.

‘The children didn’t realise they were doing anything wrong, they didn’t deliberately set out to damage the tree.

‘Sam’s eyes were swollen and red when they let him out of the cell as he had been crying. He is a placid child and has never been in trouble before.

‘When I got the phone call from the police to say Sam was in custody I thought he’d done something-like steal something from a shop. I couldn’t believe it when he said all he had done was break some loose branches off a tree.

‘To detain them, DNA them and treat them that way was simply cruel and an over-reaction by the police. Generations of children have played in that tree and my son and his friends won’t be the first to have thought of building a tree den.’

Mr Cannon, who said Sam had difficulty sleeping shortly after the incident, has written to the police to complain about the action taken.

Superintendent Stuart Johnson, operations manager at Halesowen police station, said: ‘I support the actions of my officers who responded to complaints from the public about “kids destroying” an ornamental cherry tree by stripping every branch from it, in an area where there have been reports of anti-social behaviour.

‘A boy and two girls were arrested and received a police reprimand for their behaviour.

‘West Midlands Police deals robustly with anti-social behaviour. By targeting what may seem relatively low-level crime we aim to prevent it developing into more serious matters.’

Rod Morgan, chairman of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales, said the police action appeared to be unnecessary.

‘It’s my opinion that too many children are being criminalised for behaviour that could be dealt with informally by ticking them off and speaking to their parents.’

22:27pm 23rd July 2006