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American Bar Association

Improving Police-Youth Interactions

By Cristina Dacchille and Lisa Thurau – April 2, 2013

The officers were riveted to a video showing a youth’s brain light up in response to photographs of an adult expressing surprise. The parts of the brain lighting up in the juvenile participants were in a completely different location than the parts lighting up in adults.

The youth in the video reported that they saw anger and distrust—not surprise—in the photographs of adults’ faces. Dr. Jeff Bostic, an adolescent psychiatrist leading the first day of the Strategies for Youth training, which focuses on teen brains, said, “You see, it’s like we’re talking French to kids and they’re talking Japanese. We’ve got a problem being heard because their brains are wired differently at this age.”

This is the kind of information Strategies for Youth provides officers. And it’s about time.

  • Functional MRIs and CAT brain scans offer definitive evidence that teen brains perceive, process, and therefore respond differently than the brains of adults.
  • In four juvenile decisions since 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court has taken judicial notice of these scientific discoveries.
  • The National Academies Press issued a report by the National Research Council concluding that meaningful juvenile-justice reform must be premised on a developmental approach.

Police are effectively first responders to the vast majority of issues involving youth in communities across America. So why aren’t we equipping police with best practices for working with youth? Why isn’t information about what makes teens push limits, defy authority, and misjudge when to turn left into oncoming traffic included in police recruit academy curriculum? Why isn’t it available for in-service trainings?

Training First Responders to Work with Youth
Lisa Thurau founded Strategies for Youth to address this very issue. While at the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk Law School in Boston, Lisa joined with Jack O’Connor of Peabody & Arnold, who provided pro bono assistance, to bring a civil-rights suit against a Boston transit police department that daily dealt with 40,000 youth going to and from school each morning. Transit officers were consistently arresting and detaining teenagers for minor infractions. One youth, for example, was arrested and detained for hours, without access to a parent, for laughing at an officer when a pigeon relieved itself on the officer’s shoe. Three other teens were arrested for malicious destruction of public property after rollerblading in an unused cement “park” in a subway station. Thurau argued that these behaviors, while certainly immature and impolite, failed to rise to the level of criminal activity.

After the law suit was settled, Thurau approached the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) Transit Police of Boston and broached the idea of becoming allies and letting Strategies for Youth train police officers on how to work effectively with teens. According to former MBTA Police Chief Joseph Carter, the traininghelped MBTA police achieve “a drop in the number of confrontations with our officers, a vast increase of support from the community for our work, and a reduction in the number of arrests.” In fact, the number of MBTA arrests dropped 80 percent from 1999 to 2009 and continues to decrease steadily—with no increase in crime; indeed, the MBTA has become known in the metropolitan Boston region for its expertise with youth.

Thurau’s success with the MBTA prompted her to found Strategies for Youth, Inc. (SFY), a national advocacy and training organization. Thurau’s goal was to promote juvenile-justice reform prior to arraignment, by training police officers on how to focus more on relationship building and asserting their inherent authority rather than simply arresting the kids. Trainings focused on redirecting officer’s responses more toward alternatives to arrest.

Throughout the country, police frequently find themselves caught between the dwindling social safety net and a justice system that often lacks the will, resources, and flexibility to best meet youths’ needs. Police who deal with the nation’s children and youth, often in extreme situations—domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, as witnesses to community violence, as victims and as victimizers—do not receive the training to help the youth with whom they work. Remarkably, SFY has yet to encounter officers who have been trained to recognize and respond to youth suffering from trauma.

Too often, officers have one tool—arrest—for situations that typically could be resolved with an approach that digs deeper and that builds on officers’ inherent authority, instead of that of the juvenile-justice system.

This combination of factors has led to several disturbing trends:

  • First, police are increasingly arresting youth for minor offenses; since 1985, there has been a 109 percent increase in the number of juvenile arrests for public disorder offenses.
  • Second, police are more likely to use force with youth, particularly youth of color; although 16- to 19-year-olds represent only 7.5 percent of police contacts, they make up 30 percent of contacts involving force, with police initiating the use of force in 80 percent of those incidents. Black youth have a police contact rate of 1 in 10, but a use of force rate of 1 in 4.
  • Third, youth are more likely to be held in detention facilities, with the use of detention for arrested youth increasing by 140 percent between 1995 and 2005. This is particularly disturbing given the many studies that document abuse of youth in detention facilities and the absence of appropriate psychiatric and medical care, both of which reduce the likelihood of rehabilitation.

These troubling statistics call attention to the need for a better approach to police-youth interactions. Although public defenders and civil-rights attorneys across the country do the necessary work of correcting injustices in individual cases, it is simply not sufficient to address the underlying problem.

A National Solution: Strategies for Youth
SFY is a national advocacy and training organization dedicated to improving police-youth interactions and reducing the disproportionate number of minority youth who come in contact with the juvenile-justice system. SFY’s mission is to promote a youth-development approach among law-enforcement officers and to expand age-appropriate interventions for youth, while equipping both officers and youth with the tools they need to interact positively. SFY advocates for reduced reliance on the juvenile-justice system for minor offenses, and it is the only national organization that approaches this issue both from a juvenile-justice and from a youth- development perspective.

SFY believes that adults who are developmentally competent have more effective interactions with youth. “Developmental competence” refers to the understanding that children’s and adolescents’ perceptions and behaviors are influenced by biological and psychological factors related to their developmental stage. Developmental competence is based on the premise that specific, sequential stages of neurological and psychological development are universal. Children’s and adolescents’ responses differ from those of adults because of fundamental neurobiological factors and related developmental stages of maturation.

A person who is developmentally competent recognizes that how children and youth perceive, process, and respond to situations is a function of their developmental stage and, secondarily, their culture and life experience. Developmentally competent adults align their expectations, responses, and interactions—as well as those of institutions and organizations—to the developmental stage of the children and youth they serve.

To become developmentally competent, an individual must:

  • Understand that children, adolescents, and adults interpret and respond differently to situations, social cues, interpersonal interactions, and the inherent power of adults, making children and adolescents more vulnerable to external pressures and more compliant with authority.
  •  Apply this knowledge to enhance and improve interactions with children and youth.
  • Calibrate institutional responses to the developmental stage of the children and youth served.

To accomplish its mission of improving police-youth interactions, SFY engages in three core activities: (1) educating the law-enforcement community with multidisciplinary training in cutting-edge, effective youth interaction strategies aimed at expanding policing tactics beyond arrest; (2) educating youth and their communities about how to engage and interact effectively with police officers to promote public safety and youths’ best interests; and (3) developing resources and tools to promote a youth development approach with law enforcement officers and police department practices.

Educating Law Enforcement
Fear of youth fueled by negative depictions in the media, combined with wide-scale reductions in social services, have effectively transformed police into first responders on issues involving youth in many communities across America. As the influence of police in all aspects of youths’ lives—at home, in school, in the mall, and on the street—has increased, so has the need for law- enforcement officers to understand the workings of the teen brain. Despite the greater presence of police in the lives of young people, police-academy training does not typically provide instruction in essential strategies for working with them. Indeed, SFY’s recently published report, If Not Now, When? (Feb. 5, 2013), which analyzes the level of skills and information provided to law enforcement in the academy, indicates that the central focus is on the juvenile code—not communication skills or best practices for redirecting youth behavior.

Although the International Association of Chiefs of Police recommends specialized training in juvenile development, there is no national curriculum for such training. Similarly, the National Association of School Resource Officers, the largest training organization for school resource officers, does not provide education in child or youth development, psychology, or best practices for promoting good interactions and better behavior from youth.

In response to this gap in law-enforcement education, SFY has developed Policing the Teen Brain, a training based on cutting-edge psychiatric practice and neurological research. Through interactive discussions with adolescent-development experts and psychiatrists, and with community youth who serve as “teaching assistants,” officers learn how to assert authority using alternative techniques to increase teen compliance and de-escalate and defuse volatile situations. They learn evidence-based strategies for working with teens: how to calm them, help them focus, and encourage them to rethink their typically headstrong assertions and behaviors. Particularly critical is developing the ability to “read” youths’ mental stability. This training has implications for a variety of subgroups, most especially school resource officers; SFY has adapted the training to include Policing the Teen Brain in Schools and Policing Youth Chronically Exposed to Trauma & Violence.

SFY’s training of law-enforcement provides officers an in-depth examination of how the changes occurring in teens’ brains can help to explain many of their hard-to-police behaviors. The training helps further officers’ understanding of the functioning of the normal teenage brain and their knowledge about why adolescents behave differently than adults. They learn how mental- health conditions, such as depression, oppositional defiance disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, affect teen behavior. The training also teaches officers to understand how race and socioeconomic status may play a role in police and youth interactions. Finally, officers learn to employ a range of evidence-based approaches to integrate research findings, best practices, and innovations to improve relationships and promote respect and trust between police and youth.

Policing the Teen Brain ensures that officers are able to better serve youth and develop connections to community-based programming that make arrest a matter of last resort. Officers who have been trained by SFY routinely comment on how useful it is for preventing crime, intervening with youth, and promoting a “smart on crime” approach that elicits cooperation instead of antagonism between youth and police.

Educating Youth
At a recent SFY training event, a police sergeant role-played an interrogation with a teenage participant. The officer asked the youth if he understood his Miranda rights. The participant responded, “Of course, I know my rights. I have the right to say anything I want.” Unfortunately, this teen’s confusion of his free speech rights under the First Amendment and his right against self-incrimination under Miranda is not uncommon. Indeed, juveniles’ lack of comprehension of the most basic terms routinely used by stakeholders in the juvenile justice system has been documented repeatedly.

Many young people hear incorrect, inaccurate, and inconsistent messages from television. In their communities, they see differential treatment of people by legal authorities as a function of race and class. They are cynical, influenced by older siblings and peers who believe the best defense for interactions with authority is to challenge it, which most adults, especially police, find offensive. Schools, once the source of such information in civics classes, do not address these issues, or they emphasize legal rights rather than behaviors that can avoid escalation of interactions.

Unfortunately, young people’s lack of understanding has come at exactly the time that criminalization of youth appears to be on the rise. State and criminal justice policies promote this criminalization and the use of adult approaches with youth. Since the early 1990s, this “adultifying” trend has been reflected in an increased number of police in schools, with more than 17,000 officers presently assigned to public schools, and harsher statutes, including transfer of youth to adult courts, jails, and prisons.

For these reasons, SFY developed the Juvenile Justice Jeopardy, an interactive outreach program that engages youth in conversations about the juvenile-justice system and the potential consequences of their actions. This scenario-based game offers youth advocates and other stakeholders a structured framework for conveying consistent information about juvenile law and youth’s interactions with law enforcement. The game teaches youth how to navigate interactions with police and their peers. It helps youth understand the real implications of their interactions with police and their peers, as well as the long- and short-term ramifications of arrest and court involvement on their future educational and employment opportunities.

The game, played on interactive software, aims to ensure that police and youth maintain a positive relationship and that young people stay out of the juvenile-justice system and on the path to success. Juvenile Justice Jeopardy has already had a significant impact on over 5,000 young people in public schools and after-school programs, as well as those in detention or incarcerated in cities and towns throughout the country.

Resource Development
When a juvenile is arrested, whether for a simple assault or an attempted murder, the information from the arrest is the beginning of a juvenile’s second identity, a life in a system of databanks. This system, tucked behind the scenes of juvenile-justice institutions, drops blocks in the path of juveniles as surely as a door in a maze. It blocks passage into employment, educational opportunities, and access to public benefits, including the right to stay in public housing for youth and their families. It can block passage to citizenship for a youth—and for the youth’s siblings and parents simply through guilt by association. It can bar entry into the military and its education opportunities.

And yet, youth are the last to know how entry into the juvenile-justice system robs them of second chances. They are not routinely informed of these collateral consequences—which often dwarf the impact of the offense for which youth are charged—by judges, by defense attorneys, or probation officers.

As a result, and at the suggestion of then-Sergeant (now Deputy Chief) Kenny Green, who was shocked to learn the extent of these collateral consequences, SFY developed the Think About It First! card. Think About It First! cards educate youth about the potential consequences of arrest and involvement in the juvenile-justice system. The cards provide youth with a summary of laws in their state regarding distribution of juvenile arrest and court records.

The cards are an important tool for communities, equipping youth with knowledge that could prevent them from entering the juvenile-justice system. As Sgt. Green noted, many youth are unaware of the devastating collateral consequences of arrest and court involvement: potential loss of public housing, exclusion from the military and other employment opportunities, suspension or expulsion from school, and so forth. Think About It First! cards are an easy, nonconfrontational way for community leaders, parents, educators, and others to warn youth about these consequences and to make sure they enter the world with all the knowledge they need to stay safe and out of the system.

Massachusetts officers began using the card as an icebreaker during interactions with youth. And when youth were at risk of arrest, the officers reviewed the potential loss of opportunity, thus making the officer’s decision to give youth a second chance more meaningful. “It’s a real wake-up moment for some kids,” explained Sgt. Green. “It helps them connect the dots between their behavior and the consequences.” In non-incident contexts, the cards provide officers a way of opening a conversation with youth. SFY has found that once youth are given these business-card-size tools, they often keep them for a very long time and refer to them often. Community advocates report that these cards are sometimes used by youth to help justify refusal to engage in certain behaviors with their peers; “I can’t risk Mom’s housing. . . .” or “I want to get into the military; I don’t want to risk it.”

Today, the card has been replicated in Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and California. The array of organizations requesting the card includes probation officers, school resource officers, school guidance counselors, after school programs, and youth workers.

Get Involved
SFY staff travel to cities and towns across the country to provide training to police and youth. Each training is specifically tailored to the laws and needs of the community in which it is being presented. To request a training, to learn more about SFY, or to make a donation, please visit our website at www.strategiesforyouth.org.

Keywords: litigation, children’s rights, juvenile justice, police training, school resource officers, Strategies for Youth, criminalization, Transit Police of Boston

Cristina Dacchille is a staff attorney and Lisa Thurau is founder and executive director with Strategies for Youth, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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