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Review: Rethinking How We Police Youth

Reviewer: Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Article to be Reviewed: Lisa H. Thurau, Rethinking How We Police Youth: Incorporating Knowledge of Adolescence into Policing Teens, Children’s Legal Rights Journal Vol. 29 No. 3 (Feb 2009) https://www.nlgnpap.org/sites/default/files/RethinkingPolicingYouthLT.pdf.


Law enforcement plays a major role in society and, as a result, makes an impact the daily on youths. Police officers interact in all aspects of youth’s lives—in the streets, in malls, in schools, or even in their own homes. Usually, police and youth interact when police are executing an arrest.

Youths are not generally arrested for dangerous offenses,[i]  but these arrests nevertheless have unintended consequences. Arresting a juvenile is shown to increase juvenile recidivism—sometimes, police choose to pull children into the juvenile justice system when they should not be there. This also has the effect of worsening police interactions with youths in communities, which only serves to make policing harder.

The Dynamic Between Youth and the Police

The juvenile system was created on the basis that children are different from adults. However, even with all of the knowledge that we have today about child development and brain functioning, children are not being treated in a way that reflects the juvenile system’s founding principle. For example, police work with children in the most emotionally demanding situations; yet only one state has enacted a statute requiring police training in juvenile matters.[ii] Moreover, there is a huge intolerance to police use of force in the United States, although it is the preferred method to policing with youths in many communities. Police are simply being trained to arrest youth and not to think into the situations that are leading up to the need for an arrest.

Impact on Youth: Status

The punitive approach of policing appears to be the predominant response to policing youth. Disparities in arrest rates and court referrals reflect the extent to which police anticipate where their assertion of power will be tolerated. A youth’s socioeconomic status has enormous impacts on an officer’s decision to arrest. The more a community is perceived to invest in their youths, the lower the rate of arrests typically is. Conversely, if a community is not seen as powerful or organized—or if youths are expected to be unsuccessful—there tends to be a higher rate of arrests.

Police also target certain groups of youths more than others. Males encounter police much more frequently than females. African- American youths are twice as likely to be arrested. In 2005, for example, African-American youth were 17 percent of the nation’s youth population, but they represented 30 percent of the youth arrested in America. Latino youths are arrested in some places at an even higher factor of two or even five times as much as other youths. African-American and Hispanic youths are also more likely to experience force when they come into contact with police. Surprisingly, the younger a person is, the more likely police are to use force against them.

Youths with mental health issues are also more likely to encounter the police and to be arrested. The rates of mental illness among court-involved youth are two to three times higher than the general population. Experts estimate that 60 to 70 percent of incarcerated youth suffer from a mental illness and that they are getting no treatment within the juvenile justice system beyond psychotropic medications.

Political Impact

Children learn about civil rights in school, but for many children, that sentiment is not echoed on the streets. Police do not always follow procedures and youths do not always have a place to turn. Even when they do turn to their parents for support ,they are not always given the help they need. Parents find the interactions between police and youths confusing and extremely hard navigate. This causes less activism within these communities and, thus, change is harder to enact.[iii]

Police Response

While the goal of police officers may be problem-solving, they can sometimes have a reactive approach to youth misbehavior. This approach may cause a cycle with youths who then feel abused by the police officers in their neighborhoods. While police officers report that they are concerned and want to find solutions, doing so can be challenging. Every day, police officers are faced with these challenges. They are also challenged by the day-to-day struggles of law enforcement, such as language barriers with youths, which in effect, create additional problems in their community interactions.

Youth Response

Youth behavior when interacting with police can fall into one of three categories: fight, flight, or fidelity. Youths who fight have open hostility and disrespect for police. They will even provoke officers to cause greater problems for themselves in the long run.

Some youths have a pervasive sense of helplessness, natural anger at authority, and a social, educational, and cultural emphasis on the assertion of rights—all of which converge and often explode during interactions with police. These youths perceive confrontations with police as another public announcement of their powerlessness and will sometimes hide this realization by appearing to be proud of their arrest.

Finally, there are youths who demonstrate strong fidelity to the ideal of police authority and protection and seek refuge from other youth by interacting with the police. Knowing that youth can have various reactions when confronted with police or a hostile situation can help to inform officers of how to better deal with such situations.

Education of Police and Youth

Police treat youth as adults, with an exception being Miranda rights. Even with regard to Miranda protections, the experiences of youth with police shows that police officers have an inadequate grasp of the special application of Miranda when it comes to youths. At the time that this study was published in 2009, national police organizations had neither recognized nor promoted a national curriculum for working with youth.[iv] The training that does exist is specifically in the area of race relations; however, the focus must be what makes youths different and why they think and act differently than an adult would. Police officers also need training on how to handle youths with mental illnesses and to learn how to apply that knowledge to aid in an effort for better community policing practicing.

Youth need to be better educated on how to interact with police officers. They need to know they are entitled to certain rights and they also need to know what those rights mean for their protections. Youths also should have a general understanding of how the juvenile justice system works.

Next Steps

Legal action can be taken to change police practices, but the ability to maintain and sustain the reform sought by lawsuits can be challenging. More research on the subject of youth and policing is needed in order to adequately educate and train police officers. Resources to promote change in how police treat youth are critical. This should be accompanied by a push by the federal government to support community policing as a way to better community relations.

Ultimately change will only come through good training. Training should aim to focus on:

  • Practices to de-escalate conflict among and with juveniles through having a better understanding of self-image;
  • Preparing officers to anticipate resistance with each group’s unique triggers;
  • Practices and techniques that will give police officers the skills to better understand teen situations more effectively;
  • Examinations of impacts of police decisions to detain youth and the long-term ramifications of such decisions;
  • Review of critical aspects of adolescent development and anti-social developments;
  • Focus on recognizing and dealing with youths who exhibit signs of mental illness;
  • Increasing opportunities for proactive interactions with youth workers and school resource officers (SROs) to avoid arrest or detention; and
  • Model methods of relationship-building between police, youth, youth advocates, and youth workers.


[i] Assault represents 17 percent of juvenile arrests in 2005, larceny 16 percent, drug possession 12 percent, and obstruction of justice and disorderly conduct combined makes up 21 percent of all juvenile arrests.

[ii] As of 2009 in Connecticut.

[iii] This was as of 2009. In the last few years with all of the violence and the rise of police shootings, activism has become much more prevalent in urban communities. Parents and youths are speaking out and taking part in the legal system and in bettering police departments. Further information on the “Black Lives Matter” movement would likely show that parents are much more active today than when this paper was published.