It’s been over three years since 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer on Nov. 22, 2014 as he played with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, and since an unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown was gunned down on Aug. 9, 2014 by a police officer—two tragedies which rocked the nation and helped trigger a national clamor for police reform.
But why has so little actually changed in police practices? Why do we continue to read about and watch a steady stream of stories and videos depicting police mistreating young people? Why do relations between communities and law enforcement continue to deteriorate in so many jurisdictions?
From our experience, the answer is clear. State agencies play virtually no role in setting enforceable standards regulating police behavior toward, and treatment of, youth.
Only five states out of 50 have issued standards to guide law enforcement’s treatment of youth, according to a recent report by Strategies for Youth. (One of the authors founded and is executive director of SFY.) Law enforcement agencies that do attempt to regulate police/youth interactions almost always develop their guidelines in isolation—and rarely reflect the expertise of adolescent psychologists.
Neither do they include recommended best practices or incorporate the perspectives of educators, parents, youth workers, and juvenile justice professionals.
This lack of oversight of police is all the more perplexing when contrasted with the active engagement by state agencies in regulating other professions.
In the fields of child care, health care and education, states convene diverse groups of stakeholders to develop standards based on best practices, which they rigorously enforce. Professionals working in these fields are required to demonstrate mastery of a minimal set of skills and knowledge, and to continually update these.
The public accepts and expects this level of scrutiny and accountability. Would any of us consider sending our toddler to a day care center where the staff had not received training in child development? Or bring our 10-year old, suffering from the flu, to a doctor who had not been required to pass state-level medical boards?
Or allow our teenager to attend a high school filled with teachers lacking credentials?
Yet too often, police officers are expected to respond to youth who are traumatized and distressed, under the influence of drugs and alcohol, mentally ill, autistic, or simply acting like adolescents. Their repertoire is severely limited to four responses: warn, arrest, strike out, and hospitalize.
As a result of inadequate training and knowledge about effective strategies for interacting peacefully with youth, police often over-react and escalate situations unnecessarily, leading to arrests, violence and tragedies that are entirely preventable. Departments that invest in training, partner with mental and health care workers, and adopt community policies approaches that emphasize problem-solving have shown major reductions in use of force and major improvements in addressing systemic problems.
Take for example, the Cambridge (Massachusetts) Police Department and its partnership with the Cambridge Safety Network. This department adopted SFY’s Policing the Teen Brain training, updated and revised its policies, and saw a 65 percent reduction in juvenile arrests, an 80% reduction in runaways, and immediate trauma-informed care for children witnessing domestic violence.
The absence of consistent state-approved standards also creates wildly inconsistent legal consequences for youth. In one neighborhood, a jaywalker receives a mild rebuke. In another, he is tackled and arrested. Two teenagers shoving each other in one jurisdiction might receive a stern lecture; elsewhere they face assault charges.
Often the obvious factors in disparate treatment of youth across and within communities are race, culture and socioeconomic status. These can—and do—provoke challenges to law enforcement authority and decrease perceptions of its legitimacy. They also heighten the risk that police departments will face legal challenges and federal oversight.
Fortunately, there is a solution. State legislators need to require state agencies such as state level executive offices of public safety, to create, and then enforce, developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, equitable training, standards and practices for officers.
That’s the easy part. The hard part is creating the political will to bring about such legislative fixes. Standards that guide law enforcement officers and agencies responses to youth must focus on key aspects of stops, addressing bias and disproportionate minority contact.
Such policies must make explicit the expectation that interactions with officers avoid escalation and promote positive relationships in non-incident contexts. As any prosecutor who has attempted to build a case on a juvenile’s confession can tell you, officers need guidelines for interviews and interrogations of youth.
Reading and reviewing Miranda rights is now a highly litigated area of juvenile defense law and law enforcement loses cases when it doesn’t follow some basic procedures that ensure justice to youth.
In Where’s the State, at pages 18-22, SFY proposes a comprehensive set of policies to address the many and varied interactions between law enforcement and youth.
We owe future Michael Browns, Tamir Rices, Laquan McDonalds and unnamed youth the chance to safely mature into adults. We also have a responsibility to equip courageous law enforcement officers with a comprehensive arsenal of strategies for keeping encounters peaceful and orderly.
In this case, a policy that is best for youth is also best for police.
By creating and enforcing standards that reflect current knowledge about best practices, states can help ensure that everyone goes home safely to their families at the end of the day.
That’s one priority we all share.
Lisa H. Thurau is executive director of Strategies for Youth. Deborah Lashley is former executive district attorney in the Juvenile Division of the District Attorney, Kings County, Brooklyn, NY. They welcome readers’ comments.