The 14-year-old boy, carrying a tattered Star Wars backpack, looked like a walking teddy bear.
He was participating in a group of youth speaking about their interactions with police. With a look of astonishment that grew as he spoke—eyes wide, still startled, open mouth, stuttering—he asked why police officers had pulled up next to him in a patrol car a month earlier, ordered him to lie down on the sidewalk and shouted at him to “shut the f–up.”
He obeyed their directives immediately. The officers searched him, found nothing and went on their way. After, he lay on the ground, stunned, not sure what to do.
“Miss,” he said to the group facilitator several times, “Why’d they do that to me? Why?”
That young boy was the recipient of an approach to policing of youth that, while rapidly losing favor, remains all-too-commonplace. It can be characterized like this: “You want a kid to behave, to think twice before breaking the law, or to know his place? Show him who is in charge. If he gives you any trouble, lock him up for a couple of nights. Then he’ll learn his lesson.”
Four key research studies released over the past decade demonstrate the long-term psychological and societal harm of these old-fashioned assumptions, particularly for adolescents of color.
These studies demonstrate that when police use an approach that assumes legitimacy but does nothing to establish it, the effect is the opposite of what they intended.
According to one study of 1,000 children aged 7-14, directed by Arizona State University Assistant Professor Adam Fine (a co-author of this article), children across races perceive police similarly – and positively – when they are around age 7.
But a racial divide in perceptions starts to appear and widen rapidly thereafter, with Black children’s perceptions beginning to decline at age 7, and Latinx children’s perceptions starting to decline at age 9. The study also found that repeated exposure to police in a positive, non-enforcement capacity can improve youths’ perceptions of police, but not if other officers engage in racist, biased or unjust policing.
The research of Juan Del Toro of the University of Pittsburgh and his colleagues pick up at the age where Fine’s research ends. Using longitudinal survey data, authors found that adolescent Black and Latino boys in ninth and tenth grade who are stopped by police report more frequent engagement in delinquent behavior 6, 12 and 18 months later, independent of prior delinquency.
They also noted that these youth experienced “psychological distress” as a result of these encounters; the younger the age of contact, the more heightened the distress. They conclude that police stops of young people “may unintentionally increase their engagement in criminal behavior” especially through creating psychological distress.
The research of Stephanie Wiley of Simon Fraser University further illuminates these findings. Relying on three waves of data from a multisite sample of youth, she found that being stopped or arrested not only increases future delinquency but also amplifies deviant attitudes. Simply stopping and questioning youth has immensely problematic consequences, including causing more youth crime.
As Thomas Abt of Harvard University explains in Bleeding Out, bad policing undermines public confidence, stokes resentment and fuels rage. Similarly, Dylan B. Jackson of Johns Hopkins University finds in his studies of youth that police stops change youths’ perceptions of themselves, induce feelings of trauma and post-traumatic stress, and even impacts their ability to sleep afterwards.
Taken together, these studies suggest the need to re-evaluate both the quantity and quality of police/youth interactions.
Due to the steady build-up of police in schools, and the popularity of “broken windows” policing, young people, particularly those living in urban areas, have far more constant contact with police than in previous generations. This makes it too easy for them to be under constant surveillance, to their detriment.
We need to find ways to scale back and dramatically transform that contact.
These studies also reinforce what many of us recognize intuitively. Young people are highly impressionable, and experiences—both first- and second-hand—during our childhood and teenage years often harden and resonate well into adulthood. This means that law enforcement officers should assume that any contact with a young person will last a lifetime.
When this contact affirms perceptions that they won’t be treated fairly, that they will be subject to the use of force, or that they will be humiliated in front of their peers, these youths become more, not less, likely to commit crimes in the future.
Many police officers already intuitively understand this. For them, the first rule is “don’t humiliate.”
They often refer to a young person as “Young man,” or “Sir,” signifying a certain respect and opting for a power reversal that says, “big dogs don’t need to worry about little dogs.”
They view and treat youth as they would their own children. They don’t provoke small 12-year-olds in order to remind them who is in charge.
But too many others remain trapped in an old-fashioned mindset. They need more training in de-escalation and adolescent psychology, and to be reminded that they will be far more effective if they start with honey, not vinegar.
Lisa H. Thurau, is the Founder and Executive Director of Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact.
Adam D. Fine is an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Arizona State University. His current work centers on two areas: how youth develop their perceptions of law enforcement, the law, and the justice system, and how juvenile probation processes affect youth offending, employment, education and attitudes. He is the PI of the Youth Justice Lab.