Spotlight: Police training
Helping police see the world through a kid’s eyes
A patrol officer pulls up to a group of young people standing outside a grocery store. He immediately confronts them about reports of shoplifting in the store and orders them to leave the area. He argues with one of the young men and ends up leading him away in handcuffs.
“Time to retire,” comments one police officer watching a video of the encounter.
The video continues with the same officer revisiting the scene, this time approaching the group with a smile rather than a scowl. He explains that the young people cannot stay where they are because they are blocking pedestrian traffic. When the kids object that there is no place for them to go, he suggests a nearby recreation facility and even talks about stopping by later to play basketball with them. The young people do exactly as the officer asks. No confrontation. No cuffs.
That performance draws a very different response from police who see it on video: “Much better.” “Doesn’t even seem like the same person.”
The officer and young people are all actors. The video vignettes are part of Effective Police Interactions with Youth, a training offered to patrol officers by the Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee (JJAC). The goal is to help police become more like the officer in the second video, someone who has a cooperative relationship with young people and in most cases can maintain safety without resorting to arrest. The day-long workshop aims in particular to promote positive interactions between police and minority youth.
The workshop mixes statistical presentations that raise awareness of disproportionate minority contact (DMC) with interactive exercises that help officers recognize their own preconceptions and learn concrete strategies for turning potentially adversarial encounters into positive ones. It is free-of-charge for Connecticut police officers, who earn credits toward certification from the Police Officer Standards and Training Council for completing the training.
The training has been shown to significantly increase knowledge of adolescent development, police-youth interaction, and DMC. A 2008 evaluation by the Center for Applied Research in Human Development at the University of Connecticut showed that officer knowledge in these areas went from a pre-workshop score of 46 percent to a post-workshop score of 77 percent. Though knowledge decreased from the immediate post-workshop level somewhat in follow-up tests, statistically significant gains were maintained. Positive attitudes toward young people and a commitment to work with them also increased after the training.
Turning negatives into positives
That achievement is especially impressive in light of the typical encounter between a patrol officer and an adolescent. “Patrol is a bad look at youth. It’s negative most of the time, unless you make it positive,” says attendee Barry Hertzler, director of New Britain Police Department’s Police Athletic League. Officer Hertzler recently left patrol to become the first officer to be assigned to the PAL program full-time in 20 years.
The training makes use of extensive DMC data tracked by the state. Instructors explain an important tool called the relative rate index (RRI). The RRI calculates how likely young people of different races and ethnicities are to enter the juvenile justice system taking into account the size of these populations. In Connecticut, Hispanic youth are more than 2 times more likely to be referred to court than white youth. Black youth are almost 5 times more likely to be referred to court than white youth.
That data is juxtaposed with public health surveys showing that youth of different races engage in similar behaviors at similar rates. So young people of different backgrounds do not behave all that differently, but they are treated differently.
Without being accusatory or off-putting, the training encourages officers to face that hard truth. Humor plays a key role. Difficult material is interspersed with comic videos by the likes of Dave Chappelle. Sergeant Andre Parker of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Police Department, a frequent trainer for the JJAC, is an African-American who was raised in a rural community. He takes a light approach to challenging stereotypes by pointing out his cowboy boots.
The training also delves into the idea that bias is often not intentional. Participants are handed pictures of young people and asked to work in groups to come up with phrases to describe the youth. It turns out that the same teens appear in multiple photos wearing different clothes and facial expression. A “good student” can be turned into a “troublemaker,” just by frowning and putting on a cap backwards.
“We can’t make decisions about a kid just based on how they look,” warns Lieutenant Frederick Sifodaskalakis of the Simsbury Police Department, one of the trainers.
Young brains under construction
Lt. Sifodaskalakis invites veteran officers to think about the behavior of 22- or 23-year-olds in their own departments. “They’re just like kids,” he says. The human brain is not fully developed until the mid-twenties. Before that, behavior is more likely to be impulsive and influenced by peers. For example, one study showed that where adults made the same decisions about going through a yellow light whether or not someone was in the car with them, adolescents were more likely to drive through the yellow if there was a friend in the car.
Nevertheless, there are strategies that officers can use to improve their interactions with young people. For example, adolescents are more likely to misinterpret facial expressions as showing anger. Simply saying, “I’m not angry with you,” or “You’re not in trouble,” can defuse an encounter.
Some challenges are not so much biological as generational. Many adults remember responding respectfully to the adult imperative “because I said so.” Today young people are more likely to ask “why?”
“Tell them why!” Sgt. Parker urges them. They’re more likely to comply — which is after all the goal.
Having good relationships with young people benefits police, by increasing cooperation in the moment and by encouraging youth to share information valuable to investigations. So the attendees are encouraged to find ways to reach out through activities such as having lunch in a school cafeteria or arranging some kind of recreational activities. Grants to do the latter are available through the JJAC.
Major consequences of arrest
“We used to think that sending kids to the juvenile court was the best way to get them services,” says Lt. Sifodaskalakis. “That’s not true.”
Most youth who break the law will not continue their behaviors into adulthood. Arrest, however, can actually make future problems more — not less — likely. It is associated with dropping out of high school and with ongoing involvement with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems.
“I think kids belong in school, not in jail,” said Bridgeport Police Chief Joseph Gaudette, at a recent training. But the chief noted that most of his officers want to make sure that if they choose not to arrest a young person, real consequences are still in play. So connections to alternatives, such as Juvenile Review Boards, are important.
For many people involved in the training, youth work has become a mission. “I never thought juvenile would be the area I’d go,” says Officer Oxana Tidd of the Waterford Police Department, who serves as a trainer in the program. “But you get into this job so that you can help people.”
James Anderson, a Metropolitian Transit Authority police officer taking the training has been on the job more than two decades. When he started, the idea that understanding youth development could make you a better police officer was foreign. “This wasn’t even a thought in people’s mind,” he said. Today he volunteers with a program that pairs police officers with inner-city youth at a summer camp.
“I was a kid too once,” he says. “I’m hoping that this training will help me help them.”