Policing Youth: Truth and Training

I have seen several news stories recently that cast yet another shadow over the policing profession; “ACLU reports officers are likely undertrained and overzealous in their approach to disciplining students.” Many of these news articles and reports suggest there are systemic issues with regards to police in schools, and often share the negative interactions youth have had with police.

As someone who is devoting her life to community and youth-focused policing, I want shout from the rooftops (or write in ALL CAPS) after reading these articles. I want to guard the integrity of my profession, and the officers who work so very hard to protect and serve our youth. However, I’ve learned shouting does one thing: it impresses one’s ideas on another in a way that is filled with personal bias and misunderstanding.

I’ve learned it’s easy to remain in the darkness, choosing to shout, blame, and defend. If the police are the public and the public are the police, why don’t we approach the thoughts, opinions and actions of others from a place of curiosity, instead of judgement? This new frame of mind helps us step out of the shadows of fear and uncertainty, and into the light of greater understanding.

After some honest self-reflection and communication with others, I realized that police who work with youth are often under trained. This realization came to me as I spoke with people across the country, both inside and outside of the police profession.

Trust and legitimacy starts with our children. I was hit with this awareness too, as I learned about the police-community conflicts that children carry into adulthood.

In 2015, President Obama appointed a task force to strengthen community policing and trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The President asked the task force to “identify best policing practices and offer recommendations on how those practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.” One of the recommendations in the final report is as follows:

4.7.1. Action Item – Communities and law enforcement agencies should restore and build trust between youth and police by creating programs and projects for positive, consistent, and persistent interaction between youth and police.

Yes. However, we need effective training for our officers before plugging them into programs and projects with youth.

Training should include a course of instruction on the science of child and adolescent development, as well as the impact of trauma on youth. Understanding the neuroscience and psychology helps officers recognize the root causes of behavior, which is a critical realization when working with at-risk youth. Failure to effectively train officers who work with youth populations (SRO’s, community officers, juvenile detectives, police prosecutors, and even the patrol division) is negligent.

Educators and mental health professionals are required to renew their professional licenses and credentials, taking continuing education courses to better understand child development, and to be inspired by innovation and best practices. Why aren’t we, as law enforcement, doing the same? The implications of our lack of training are far reaching, and can negatively affect a child’s social/emotional health (not to mention, shape or alter their perceptions of police).

Officers who work directly with youth should receive dynamic and diverse training. When I developed the L.E.A.P. Program (a training program for officers who work with youth), I knew I wanted to reshape the way police interact with youth. As a lifelong learner myself, I continued to take courses and attend seminars on education, brain science, child development, mindfulness, parenting, psychology, teaching and more. I translate this collective knowledge to the officers I teach, encouraging them to continue learning, and training, for the shared goal of positive youth development. We must remember these are the children who grow to be the adults we police. Wouldn’t it be great to help build good citizens in our communities?

While I do a great deal of teaching these days, I choose to remain “in the trenches.” I stay in this role because my work with children helps me to protect and serve our most valuable and vulnerable population. I work directly with children who are all beautifully different, from a variety of backgrounds. There are days I am inspired by them, and days where I feel challenged. My training and education has taught me to look for the “why” behind the challenging behaviors. I’ve also learned that I have a collaborative network that I can rely on so I’m not managing the situation alone! This village helps me support even the most difficult children and circumstances, providing solutions that are rooted in compassionate service.

The work is hard, but I wake up each day hopeful, dedicating my time to a role that is deeply meaningful to me, my community, and the children that I serve. I trust you will do the work to make a difference in your communities too!