Nine ‘Urgent’ Steps to Improving Youth-Police Relations

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Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

When it comes to police reform, the kids are not all right.

That is apparent from videos and news accounts that assault us almost daily. Over and over again, we see instances of children―some as young as six years old―and teenagers being needlessly traumatized at the hands of law enforcement.

And yet, even as discussions of police reform continue at the local, state and federal level, policy makers seem to have a blind spot regarding police/youth interactions.

While police reform initiatives were on the ballot in November in 19 states, only one, in Utah, directly resulted from officers shooting a fleeing 13-year-old autistic child in distress about his mother’s return to work.

The regularity with which the media now reports on law enforcement’s unreasonable and excessive use of force on teens and children undercuts any claim that these are rogue officers. Rather, the frequency of these incidents suggests that the increased use of force by police on adults is trickling down into officers’ treatment of children and youth.

Benita Miller

This problem is not hidden. We see it in the media routinely. So why aren’t we doing anything about it?

Where’s the political will to address the systemic failure to train police to interact with children and youth? Where are the policies directing officers to treat children and youth differently than adults—during initial contacts, when using force, and when in custody?

Police practices developed solely for managing difficult interactions with adults don’t work well with children: they leave psychological and physical scars on children.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 2011 case, J.D.B. v. North Carolina, chided law enforcement officers who exploited a 13-year-old boy’s deference to the authority of his school principal and two police officers. Instead of asking if he could leave, this young boy confessed to burgling homes, before he was even Mirandized.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in that situation, which now appears almost benign:

It is beyond dispute that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave. Seeing no reason for police officers or courts to blind themselves to that commonsense reality, we hold that a child’s age properly informs the Miranda custody analysis.

As courts consider what use of force is reasonable, proportionate and necessary, we hope they will demand that law enforcement open their eyes to the “commonsense reality” of taking age and vulnerability into account.

But we are not holding our breath. The time when we could assume that officers’ “common sense” would preclude treating children like adversarial threats is long past.

We are calling for a national campaign―Nine Needed Now―to identify the nine actions we believe are most urgently needed to protect young people from police abuse:

      1. Enact mandatory police training that addresses child and adolescent brain development, trauma, implicit bias and that prioritizes police become proficient in de-escalation tactics specific to youth-police encounters;
      2. Require state agencies to develop, understand, and hold officers accountable for using developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, and racially equitable policies, practices, and partnerships for interactions with youth;
      3. Ban the arrest and prosecution of children under the age of 12. Some 22 states still have no lower age for arrest, meaning a 6 year old can be arrested in Florida for throwing a tantrum. or a 5 year old can be arrested in for disturbing the peace in Michigan.
      4. Prevent false and involuntary confessions by youth by mandating the presence of counsel, use of age-appropriate Miranda warnings and practices before custodial interrogation of youth under 18; as well as video recordings of interrogations for youth charged with felony-level crimes.
      5. Mandate review and revisions of policies to reflect current risks of use of force on children and youth of tasers, O.C. spray, pain point pressure point control tactics, hog tying, restraints, flash bang grenades, and use of canines*. Ban pointing guns at children and youth altogether.
      6. Fund and implement mental health crisis response teams for children and youth in lieu of police response and implement crisis intervention policies that include directives for the unique needs of children and youth. Children and youth in crisis need emergency mobile psychology teams.
      7. Mandate annual data collection, analysis and public disclosure of all police encounters with children and youth including: stops (pedestrian, bicycle, and car), arrests and use of force (including the pointing of weapons at children and youth).
      8. Prohibit deployment of school resource officers in schools until, at a minimum officers are required to undergo rigorous training on use of force and restraints with youth, clear policies exist defining their role, and mandate data collection & analysis & public reporting about SROs impact on youth–particularly youth of color, with disabilities, transgender, non-binary youth, etc.
      9. Mandate policies and practices that anticipate the presence of, and require the protection of, children when their homes are the site of raids, searches and/or the arrest of their parents/caretakers or a family member is killed or injured by police violence.
Lisa Thureau

Lisa Thurau

These nine represent a beginning, not an end.

In a better world, all police who interact with young people would be trained to do so through a trauma-informed, and developmentally-appropriate lens.

But, in the spirit of “First Do No Harm” we believe that ensuring basic policies to hold law enforcement to treat children and youth differently than adults seems like a good first step.

This is the second in a series of articles examining the interaction between young people and police. Lisa H. Thurau is founder and executive Director of Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact. Benita Miller, founding executive director of the NYC Children’s Cabinet in the Office of the Mayor, served as the Deputy Commissioner for foster care service at the NYC Administration for Children’s Services under the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations and was a member of the NYS Office of Children and Family Services Juvenile Justice Independent Review Board under Commissioner Gladys Carrion. 

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