A 17-year-old girl is questioned in 2013 by a vice squad officer with the Los Angeles Police Department in California. (Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

Why Some Officers Are Policing Kids Differently

June 10, 2016
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by Sarah Childress Senior Reporter

Some of the most high-profile incidents of police violence in recent years have involved youths and teens. In Ferguson, Michael Brown was 18. Baltimore’s Freddie Gray was 25, and had a history of encounters with police. Tamir Rice, in Cleveland, was only 12.

Across the country, police and young people are increasingly coming into contact. More officers today are being hired to patrol schools, and youths are among the groups most likely to be stopped on the streets. Teens and young adults make up about 40 percent of all police street stops, according to a 2011 Justice Department survey.

Police are also increasingly being called to intervene with young people for non-criminal matters, officers and policing experts say. Officers negotiate family disputes, arrest kids for skipping school or running away from home, and they sometimes have to handle teens with trauma or mental health problems when their families can’t.

Dealing with kids is challenging, and there’s a scientific reason for it. Neuroscience has shown that the frontal lobe, which governs problem solving and judgment, isn’t fully developed until a youth is in their mid-20s, and in some cases even later. That means kids’s brains are ruled by their amygdalas, the part responsible for the “fight or flight” response. So they tend to act more impulsively, take bigger risks — and sometimes make terrible decisions. Confronted by an officer, they might mouth off, resist or simply run away, all actions that have led to arrests and even violence.

Not only can police encounters with young people lead to conflict, they can also inadvertently lead to more crime. A 2013 study by Stephanie Wiley, a professor at the University of Missouri, found that kids who are stopped or arrested by police are more likely to offend in the future, a finding that’s particularly true for black and Latino youths.

Other parts of the criminal justice system have begun to adapt to the science and treat kids differently, by raising the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults, for example, or finding ways to minimize their time in detention.

But law enforcement hasn’t made the same shift. Most departments offer no youth-specific training aside from the brief lessons in juvenile law taught during the academy, according to a report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, an advocacy and research group. And they often don’t have funding to add much more. Nearly half of departments told the IACP that their training budgets had been cut or abolished entirely in the past five years.

Now, some agencies are starting to change that. Massachusetts plans to roll out new in-service training for officers statewide in July. Several Indiana counties have adopted training for officers in their departments, and the state is considering building youth-specific training into its academies next year. Officers in several other departments nationwide have undergone classes, including in Los Angeles and Fresno, Calif., Charlottesville, Va. and more recently, Cleveland, Ohio.

“Officers Are Taught to Control”

Youth-specific training is so new that few departments have trained enough officers to conduct a critical assessment. But there are some preliminary indications that it can make a difference.

In Tippecanoe County, Indiana, officers for several departments started the training three years ago, working with Strategies for Youth, a nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by Lisa Thurau, an attorney with expertise in juvenile justice policy. Thurau’s course has been the model for training adopted around the country. It focuses on teaching cops why kids’ brains are different and offers alternate approaches for how to deal with them.

“Officers are taught to control situations through asserting authority, and that doesn’t work well with some kids,” Thurau said. “That will provoke an effort to challenge the power and defy it. You have to know really clearly when you want to choose that tactic, and when it’s not necessary.”

Sometimes that’s because kids are with peers and feel compelled to put on a show of defiance. Other times, they might have a history of trauma from abuse, she said, or are afraid or angry with police because an officer previously arrested a loved one.

In the training, officers learn tactics for dealing with young people more effectively, such as stopping to explain to a teenage girl why she must be searched, or taking a young boy aside for a conversation rather than trying to engage him in a group.

Kurt Wolf, captain of the Lafayette (Ind.) Police Department’s detective division, said that officers were skeptical at first, but became intrigued by the science. “A lot of us did not understand the full development of the kid’s adolescent brain and how it worked and why kids do what they do,” Wolf said. “It’s not all because they want to be negative. There are sometimes physical reasons for it.”

Since officers in Tippecanoe County started the training in 2013, juvenile arrests countywide have dropped a little over 11 percent, and total arrests for resisting an officer, disorderly conduct and battery against an officer dropped more than 31 percent. But for African Americans, the total arrest rate increased by 11 percent.

Rebecca Humphrey, executive director of the county’s youth services, said arrests of black youths rose because several kids were arrested multiple times, such as one girl who officers have picked up several times for running away from home. “That’s a parenting issue,” Humphrey said, adding that her office was working to provide better social services to those families.

Still, some in the African-American community said they had started to feel a thaw in their relationship with law enforcement. James Foster, a Lafayette pastor who works on juvenile issues, said that since the training began he’s heard fewer complaints from youths about their treatment by police. “There are some officers who are locked into certain mindset, and don’t seem to be able to change it,” he said, but added: “I believe there’s some change there.”

A Bigger Test

This new training approach is about to face a bigger test in Cleveland, a city with a long history of tense relations between police and the African-American community they serve. Last year, the city entered into an agreement with the Justice Department to reform police policies, procedures and training.

Long before the death of Tamir Rice, the city had been plagued by controversial police killings, including the 2005 shooting death of 15-year-old Brandon McCloud, who was killed when he was in his bedroom, holding a knife. Amid those incidents, police have also been struggling to combat rising gang violence.

When Calvin Williams was appointed chief in February 2014, he began looking for ways to improve officers’ frequent contacts with young people.

With help from a federal grant and a local foundation, the department raised $70,000 to bring in Strategies for Youth and begin training its officers in youth-friendly tactics.

Training started in 2015. So far, about 7 percent of Cleveland police officers have completed the program. The city has also since signed onto a reform agreement with the federal government, which will require additional training on use of force and crisis intervention.

Community members say it’s too soon to tell whether it’s working. But Dylan Sellers, an activist with the Children’s Defense Fund, said he believes that the police leadership, at least, is committed to change. “What you’re seeing now is a slow grind toward some progress,” he said, adding that officers are spending more time in neighborhoods and working with kids in schools. “That builds relationships,” he said, “but there’s nothing on the books to hold them accountable.”

It’s also difficult to know whether or how officers will apply these new skills. Williams, the chief, said he couldn’t say whether the training would have prevented an incident like the Rice shooting, for example. And he added that with the gang violence that still plagues the city, officers can’t always take this softer approach.

“I think it definitely is going to have an impact on the way we do business,” he said, but added that each incident is different. “There are some situations where you can take your time and talk and reason, and other situations where things happen in seconds.”

For now, training is on hold as the department prepares for the Republican National Convention in July. Williams said he hopes to resume the courses toward the end of the year.

Funding for the Enterprise Journalism Group is provided by the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Drane Family Fund.

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