At a training of Massachusetts MBTA Training Academy recruits in July, a police officer said to the group, “What I am telling you today we did not get when we were in the academy. Now you’ve got a leg up in dealing with kids by knowing this stuff.” The officer had been trained in a train-the-trainer capacity building effort by Strategies for Youth. “Knowing this stuff about kids makes working with them easier and less stressful and believe me, they can be stressful,” he told the recruits.
The newly released findings of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) survey on juvenile justice and youth training needs suggest this officer is both right and unusual. Training in best practices for working with youth is helpful, but remains the exception to the rule across the country.
The IACP’s survey, the “2011 Juvenile Justice Training Needs Assessment,” found that police chiefs want training but lack funding and agency resources to provide it to their officers. They wanted their officers to have the skills to work with the increasing and challenging demands posed by youth. The top 5 areas in which chiefs want their officers trained are:
- substance abuse;
- physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse;
- dealing with chronic juvenile offenders;
- bullying/cyber-bullying; and
- gangs. Other topics included internet offending, runaways, and school safety.
The survey is notable for the unusually large size of the sample: over 672 law enforcement officers in 404 law enforcement agencies in 49 states and the District of Columbia. The agencies represented the gamut of departments, from small and rural, to suburban, to large and urban; 77% were police departments.
Demands on Law Enforcement:
While officers have always dealt with children and youth, arguably today they are asked to deal with them more than ever. Cuts in youth serving programs, the increased placement of officers in schools, and the common reaction of calling the police for any youth-related issue, combine to make police the first responders to incidents involving youth.
To be sure, police need to respond to the special issues created by youth, usually in the domain of the boundary testing that puts us all on edge. Increasingly, police also need to allay the fears that are piqued in many communities when a group of youth—regardless of their activity—is seen as cause for police intervention. Such interactions are even more challenging and charged when race and cultural diversity are in the mix—and officer’s mistakes go to the core of department’s legitimacy in the community.
Officers deal with youth in the course of some of the most traumatic situations of young people’s lives. But they are not trained to recognize signs of trauma or anxiety in youth, or the best practices for dealing with youth who have been traumatized. Officers across America are the number one referral agents for abuse and neglect of children, the first responders for domestic violence incidents involving children, and for working with youth who victimize and are victimized. Departments can’t fairly claim to support community policing if they don’t know the best practices for working with a large sector of their jurisdiction’s population: youth under the age of 19 represent 1/6 of the American population.
Where’s the Training?
More than half the chiefs surveyed by the IACP reported a decrease or abolition of training programs in the last five years. The survey results echo Strategies for Youth’s view that American police are not provided necessary skills for working with youth. They are not trained in best practices or the most effective methods. Lack of capacity and resources is one reason; the IACP confirms another conclusion of SFY, namely that this training is not included or given priority in police academy curricula.
Respondents to the survey noted that coverage of such topics at the academy level is limited and is not mandated after basic academy level training. The survey found that not only is such training not offered, but most departments do not have written guidelines or standard operating procedures for responding to incidents involving youth.
The combination of these deficits means that American officers are not receiving the support, guidance, and training to provide quality police/youth interactions.
The federal government needs to step into the breach. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is best positioned to fill this void, albeit the least well-funded, to make this a national policy priority and goal. State police officer standard and training (POST) offices need to include such training as part of their mandated academy and in-service training.
Training officers how to work with youth: it’s what chiefs say they want, it’s what science shows works, and it’s what kids need.
Lisa H. Thurau, Esq. is a member of the IACP’s Juvenile Justice Committee and participated in this research effort.
A graduate of Barnard College and Columbia University, she received her law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law of Yeshiva University in 1991. Before becoming an attorney, Lisa worked as a researcher and advocate for reform and improvement of the public education system in New York City. Today she is the executive director of Strategies for Youth, an organization dedicated to improving the interactions between police and youth by increasing the approach, options and responses of police to youth. Questions or comments can be emailed to Ms. Thurau at email@example.com.