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When Police and Youth Encounter Each Other, Bad Things Don’t Have to Happen

Two states are leading the way in training and accountability guidance and policies aiming to prevent tragedy and trauma. Arrest should be viewed as the least desirable outcome.

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A police officer talks with a teenager in Rockford, Ill. (David Kidd/Governing)
As police reform proposals slowly (and often painfully) wind their way through state legislatures and local governments, it’s worth taking a look at actions taken by Massachusetts and Ohio to increase and clarify law enforcement obligations to, and protections for, children and adolescents.

It’s time for the other 48 states to take notice and replicate these regulations and policies.

Strategies for Youth (SFY), an organization founded in 2010 to improve relations between police and young people, has always adopted a pragmatic approach to police reform. We do not demonize police or youth. We do recognize and constantly seek to redress how inadequate or nonexistent policies and training regarding law enforcement treatment of children and adolescents are recipes for tragedy and trauma.

According to our 2013 study, the amount of time law enforcement recruits spent learning about policing youth during their academy training was, on average, six hours. As the International Association of Chiefs of Police has repeatedly warned and cajoled its members, training and policies for working with youth are as necessary as they are rare. Sadly, little has changed in the nine years since we issued that report. State regulatory agencies usually prioritize the training of officers only after they have been challenged by a lawsuit, embarrassed by an incident caught on tape that goes viral or hit with a consent decree.

Yet as SFY has demonstrated for over a decade, proven strategies exist and work: policies, training, partnerships and accountability. Law enforcement officers and agencies need to be held accountable to policies that spell out developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed and racially equitable treatment of young people.

Specifically, officers need training focused on the adolescent brain and strategies for interacting effectively and peacefully with youth who may be traumatized, suffering from mental illness or simply defiant, without criminalizing them. Police need to learn about alternatives to arrest and ways to partner with community-based organizations that provide support for young people and their families. Arrest should be viewed as the least desirable outcome of any interaction with a child or adolescent.

We know that a teen who, instead of facing arrest for a low-level offense, is referred to a service agency faces a more hopeful future. We know that an officer who effectively de-escalates a situation before it erupts averts a potential tragedy. We also know that officers who treat young people with compassion instead of force become better and stronger public servants.

In the past year, for the first time, two state law enforcement regulatory agencies have officially recognized that law enforcement officers need to be held accountable to a different standard regarding their treatment of youth.

Massachusetts had effectively blocked the creation of a Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission for years, until the state Legislature mandated its creation, in response to the George Floyd murder, in December 2020. The following June, the commission issued guidance incorporating language provided by SFY for treatment of youth focusing on de-escalation, education, training “and other alternatives to use of force with minor children.” Massachusetts thereby became the first state to articulate separate standards for police treatment of youth.

In Ohio, Gabriella Celeste, policy director of Case Western Reserve University’s Schubert Center for Child Studies, led an effort with SFY for several years to convince the state to adopt standards for policing youth. Then, finally, a breakthrough: This May, the Ohio Collaborative Community Police Advisory Board voted to adopt a statewide minimum standard stating that “because youth are psychologically, emotionally and physically different from adults, they occupy a unique legal status that entitles them to special legal protections.” To gain certification in the new standard, law enforcement agencies must establish written policies governing how officers and other agency personnel interact with youth.

Critically, both the Massachusetts guidance and the Ohio policy are mandatory for all officers employed by a certified law enforcement agency. That means that, between the two states, some 47,000 police officers will now be expected to adhere to minimum standards of treatment of youth reflecting science-informed best practices. Imagine how exponentially higher that figure would be if all states adopted similar measures.

Agencies, policymakers, legislators, regulators, municipalities, law enforcement unions and police officers may be asking themselves: What’s in it for us? Here are four benefits:

  • Consistency of treatment and approach across all jurisdictions in the state.
  • Increased legitimacy of law enforcement agencies among youth, families and their communities.
  • Reduced risk of lawsuits and legal liability.
  • Scarce dollars saved that can be reinvested elsewhere.

State policymakers and police regulatory agencies have a chance to create models that represent modern, smart, human and effective policing, all the while saving and improving young lives. All they have to do is walk through the doors that Massachusetts and Ohio have opened.

Johanna Wald is a communications and policy specialist with Strategies for Youth, a national policy and training organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing ethnic and racial disparities. Lisa H. Thurau is the founder and executive director of Strategies for Youth.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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