Hope Springs Infernal for Better Policing

Lisa Thurau, executive director, Strategies for Youth

Is it time to give up?

In April, forced to spend all day inside, with too much time on my hands, this was the question that kept running through my brain. The COVID-19 pandemic was squashing the ability of my team at Strategies for Youth to offer our Policing the Teen Brain training to groups of law enforcement. We had been poised to present in new states and were excited to work with new departments. These plans had to be abruptly canceled, with no rescheduling dates on the horizon.

But even without a pandemic, I was becoming increasingly discouraged about SFY’s long-term prospects. The sad fact was that I was becoming convinced that no one with either authority or power cared much about how youth were being treated by police or whether their constitutional protections were being upheld.

Despite a steady onslaught of rather horrific videos involving police brutality, I felt like sustained outrage had dried up. A kind of fatalism was creeping in, a “throwing our hands up in the air, here we go again” response to images of 6-year-olds being handcuffed, or 11-year-olds thrown up against the wall for taking too many milks in school, or s 15-year-old being body slammed.

The new response by police chiefs was to fire these officers. While that shut down the media attention, it unfortunately undermined any kind of systemic reform that would require training and policies so that no officer would engage in the same behaviors.

Other realities were also staring me in the face.

Foundations were telling us that the cost of police reform is too high—it takes too much time, isn’t certain to endure and costs too much.

Lisa Thurau (left), executive director of Strategies for Youth, at a community discussion at Boston University about the school-to-prison pipeline. Photo courtesy of SFY

Since the election of President Donald Trump, federal funding for police reform has ended. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice effectively curtailed any demands on, or oversight of, the states to address their legal mandate to reduce disproportionate minority contact. And the first point of that contact is with the police.

And law enforcement agencies were telling us they didn’t need us. “Everything is fine, we have no problems here.” Even as some communities were begging us to push for change in police treatment of their children, we detected a sizable and smug resistance among law enforcement to any pressure to change. Clearly, without any leadership or even support from state or federal officials to reform their practices, they showed little inclination to do so on their own.

So a mere six years after police fatally shot Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and three years after the “uprising” in the wake of Freddie Gray’s slaying in Baltimore in which youth screamed to be heard about the predatory policing practices they suffered there, we watched the burning need for change extinguish.

Too many people stared at the embers of a fire and looked away. Now we all see a blaze.

The post-Ferguson/Tamir Rice incentive for law enforcement agencies to revise their policies to use developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, racially equitable approaches was no longer on anyone’s horizon—unless a pre-2016 consent decree was involved. That meant that, as of 2017, no state in the U.S. had a model policy for police-youth interactions to offer its law enforcement agencies.

The push for training saw a slight improvement with 20 states requiring training of school resource officers between 2015 and 2019. But a quick review of their curricula demonstrates how limited that “progress” has been. Only nine states’ curricula involve any discussion of adolescent development,  only seven address trauma, and only one mentioned students’ rights.

Training of patrol officers to include best practices for working with youth has not changed in the nation’s academies since we first evaluated it in 2013. How is that possible?

And while the policies and practices of many law enforcement agencies remained unchanged, the number of lawsuits for unreasonable and excessive use of force brought on behalf of youth increased dramatically. And the FBI reported that over 30,000 children under the age of 10 have been arrested between 2015 and 2018.

Sadly, as public, private and media interest in reforming law enforcement treatment of youth dissipated, young people’s fears did not. In fact, they got more intense. Here’s what young people tell us across America:

  • I’m scared of being shot.
  • I feel like I’ve got a target on my back.
  • It’s best if I just expect the worst.

African American youth in particular, and poor youth of all colors, express fear about the violence they see when their families and friends are arrested, and when a minor event escalates into the sudden arrival of five cops with guns drawn that demonstrates to youth that if they thought they would “win” an interaction on the basis of a conversation, they were sorely mistaken.

While they can name officers who care, protect and help them, they dare not generalize from certain positive experiences with officers, to all officers.

So I find the current civil unrest and rage at the known police deaths of this spring giving me hope. I am so impressed by the fantastic impact of years of organizing by Black Lives Matter, the prison reformers and those challenging the United States’ dubious distinction of being “Incarceration Nation.” I laud the impact of so many young people educating themselves about American history and its realities, and the number of youth of color who explain — better than any adult — just how systems of oppression work in their lives and how this makes life unbearable, unbreathable for them.

And I appreciate the number of law enforcement leaders and officers breaching the thin blue line to come out in opposition to the use of chokeholds and other force tactics. If nothing else, the words and actions of these leaders can serve as a standard by which they must judge their agency’s policies and practices.

Right now, the public’s outrage is fierce enough that it may force some change. Young people, as always, are showing us the way. But it is not fair, right or realistic to expect youth to carry all the water. We’re the adults here, right?

But I’m not totally elated and hopeful. Summoning the will to withstand the inevitable pushback will continue to be our greatest challenge to real change. Experience has shown me that what is needed for real, enduring reform starts with the political will at all levels to insist on reforming law enforcement policies and practices in America.

That includes an end to enabling the worst officers and practices to be protected and to marginalize good officers and righteous practices and policies. I am including the following people and their institutions who routinely permit gross miscarriages of justice:

  • Mayors who sign collective bargaining agreements with police unions that are antithetical to upholding civil rights.
  • Courts that give qualified immunity to officers and accept standards for use of force that are blatantly unrealistic and racist.
  • Legislatures that refute demands for standards of accountability that permit law enforcement to remain an insular, protected group that has no need to explain itself.

I’m inspired by the activism of young people and will do what I can to assure them a future. I’m not going to stop now.

Lisa Thurau is the executive director of Strategies for Youth, which works to reduce contentious encounters between police and youth, unnecessary arrests of youth for minor offenses,and disproportionate policing of children of color.

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