Cops and Kids: We Need New Thinking


There is much to love about the interim report released last month by the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It is clear that the task force delved deeply into the research, listened carefully to experts and practitioners, and was extremely thoughtful in its analysis.

The report stressed increased collaboration and cooperation between community agencies, social services and law enforcement, and viewed community engagement as a key crime reduction strategy. It warned against pushing youths into the juvenile justice system for minor offenses, and recommended eliminating the use of conductive electronic devices (such as tasers) and corporal punishment in schools.

With such jewels for recommendations, it seems almost mean-spirited to point out flaws in the report.

But in two critical areas regarding policing youths, the report falls short. In order not to miss an unprecedented opportunity to advance urgently needed reforms, these should be revised before any final report is issued.

The report's most glaring error is one of omission. It does not prioritize mandatory training for all police in adolescent psychology and development. Given the fact that the task force was created in response to police shootings of three individuals—two of whom were unarmed black teenagers—this omission seems both troubling and perplexing.

In the past decade, there has been an explosion in research about how the teen brain differs from that of an adult. This knowledge has shed light on how to communicate effectively with them, how to diffuse–rather than exacerbate– volatile interactions, and how to recognize behaviors related to trauma and exposure to violence.

These strategies are now routinely taught to judges, to teachers, counselors, mental health workers, and other professionals entrusted to work with adolescents.

Yet, incredibly, very few police benefit from this knowledge.

In 2013, Strategies for Youth conducted a survey that showed, on average, less than six hours, or one percent, of total instructional hours required of police cadets focuses on juvenile justice. And 90 percent of this very thin gruel is spent teaching about laws.

This means that police who interact regularly with youths, and are required to make split-second decisions that can change a young person's life forever, often lack even a rudimentary understanding of basic developmental or psychological factors involved in his or her behavior.

Training in adolescent psychology, in strategies for calming down potentially volatile situations, and in understanding unconscious bias should be a required part of every police academy curriculum in the country.

The task force has a responsibility to point that out. As Ron Davis, Director of Community Oriented Policing Services at the Department of Justice, explained, officers need to understand “why people do what they do.”

The other set of recommendations in need of a few essential tweaks in the task force report addresses police engagement in schools.

Currently, the recommendations are both confusing and contradictory. On the one hand, the report urges law enforcement to “reform policies and procedures that push children into the juvenile justice system” and to “limit police involvement in student discipline.”

Then, on the same page, it invites law enforcement to “develop and monitor” school discipline policies, as well as restorative justice and positive strategies that focus on learning. It goes on to recommend that law enforcement work with schools “to create a continuum of developmentally appropriate and proportionate consequences.”

Whoa! The truth is that, today, in far too many schools, those directives cannot be reconciled. Nor should they be, since they encourage further encroachment of police into territory where they should not venture.

Why should police, without any training or background, help schools devise educational policy and practices?

And, in point of fact, few want to. In interviews we conducted with dozens of school resource officers, their number-one complaint was being asked by school officials to act as student disciplinarians instead of as law enforcement officers.

No matter how well-intentioned the police may be, their involvement in “creating a continuum” of consequences seems to regularly lead to further criminalization of student behaviors that should be dealt with exclusively by teachers, administrators, counselors and parents.

The task force should recommend that police only be involved when the school community is in danger, or when a serious law has been broken. It should recommend less, not more, engagement of police in school matters.

Police/youth interactions shape a teenager's view of authority and respect for the law throughout his or her life. The President's Task Force has an historic opportunity to recommend changes that can positively redirect the lives of millions of youths coming of age in communities across the country.

Let's make sure that its final report reflects our best thinking about how to develop trusting relationships between police and youths, how to promote positive youth development, and how to keep our schools and streets as safe as possible.

Lisa H. Thurau is Executive Director of Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit policy and training organization dedicated to improving policy/youth interactions and reduce disproportionate minority contact. Johanna L. Wald is Director of Strategic Planning for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice at Harvard University Law School.They welcome readers comments.

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