Review: Variations in Police Officer Behavior – Juveniles Versus Adults

Reviewer: Sarah Krantz, Esq.

Article to be Reviewed: Brown, Robert A.; Frank, James; Novak, Kenneth J., Identifying Variation in Police Officer Behavior Between Juveniles and Adults. Journal of Criminal Justice 31 (2009) at 200-208. http://www.uncfsu.edu/Documents/Criminal-Justice/Brown6.pdf.


It has long been theorized that there is a difference in the way that police officers on the street regulate and handle public conduct with juveniles in comparison with adults. This may be based on officers’ perceptions that juveniles are more troublesome, less respectable, a greater threat, more irrational, and less fearful of authority. Additionally, officers have more concentrated contact with juveniles that is often described as antagonistic and adversarial. Officers must also find a balance in dealing with juveniles—specifically, law enforcer versus maintaining order versus helping the child. Criminal justice expert Robert A. Brown[i] tested this theory, considering various factors that make adults and children different, and concluded that police encounters with juvenile suspects and with adult suspects is substantially distinct.

Age, Race, and Officer Behavior

Juveniles are more likely to be arrested by community police officers that hold negative attitudes towards the community policing philosophy. When comparing community officers to traditional beat officers, juvenile encounters were more likely to end in arrest regardless of the officer’s work assignment.

When looking at a suspect’s race, African-American juveniles were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested than African-American adults. When considering the race of the officers, arrests involving African-American officers led to 9.2 times more juvenile arrests than adults compared to Caucasian officers, who were only 2.7 times more likely to arrest a juvenile compared to an adult.

Research also indicates more use of force or coercion during encounters with juveniles—the younger the suspect, the more coercion reported. Young offenders are also more likely to have force applied against them. Brown believes that there is an inverse relationship between suspect age and punitive police action and that, all else being equal, juveniles are treated differently than adults.

Police Authority

Legal authority is given to police no matter how short-lived or trivial the interaction between an officer and suspect may seem. This legal authority empowers officers to ask questions, give orders, search suspects, and render sanctions. Informal authority allows officers to issue verbal warnings or provide suggestions. Formal authority allows for the issuance of citations, police reports, or full custody arrests. Based on the range of alternatives available to officers, it was possible for Brown to determine whether officer interactions with juveniles differ from interactions with adults.


  • Officers are significantly more likely to arrest juvenile suspects.
  • Officers are more likely to initiate contact with a juvenile; however, officers are no more or less likely to demonstrate variation in the amount of authority they use based on the age of the individual.
  • It is significantly more likely that someone—regardless of age—will be arrested if the offense is serious, the offense occurs in the presence of an officer, based on the officer’s race, or if the offender is intoxicated. Adults living in “good” neighborhoods who encountered police are significantly more likely to be arrested while juveniles living in “bad” neighborhoods are significantly more likely to be arrested. Arrest appears to be the preferred strategy of police when encountering juvenile suspects based largely the age-status of the juvenile and where the encounter with the juvenile occurred.
  • Disrespectful juveniles were not more likely to be arrested, but they were more likely to encounter aggression and excessive authority from the officer.



[i] All authors of the original article conducted the study mentioned in the following summary. The study was prepared based on observations of the 1,000 street level officers in the Cincinnati Police Division between April 1997 and April 1998 along with the Police Services Study and Project on Policing Neighborhoods. Data on gender, race, age, and whether the participants were under the influence of drugs or alcohol was also collected. The study will be referred to as “Brown’s study” for the remainder of the summary.