Lisa H. Thurau and Johanna WaldA mom called policesaying her 9-year-old daughter was suicidal and threatening her in Rochester, New York. The first
Lisa H. Thurau and Johanna Wald
A mom called policesaying her 9-year-old daughter was suicidal and threatening her in Rochester, New York. The first officer to respond to the incident, which happened last week, called dispatch for backup, and six cars rushed to the scene. Officers gave the girl little time to calm down, while dragging her in the snow, cuffing her and shoving her in a patrol car. When she refused to put her feet into the vehicle, and continually cried out for her father, officers pepper-sprayed her into submission.
A few minutes into the videotaped altercation, an officer is seen losing his patience. “You’re acting like a child!” he shouted; to which the 9-year-old replied, “I am a child!”
The chief of the patrol officer’s union noted the outcome could have been worse.
A representative for the Rochester Police Department later explained that, according to the department’s policies, the child’s resistance and failure to obey commands required that force be used to gain her compliance.
And therein lies the problem. When it comes to police treatment of young people, especially young people of color, we seem to be living in an endless loop of “Groundhog Day.”
And while the public continues to clamor for police reform, the treatment of children and youth is surprisingly absent from many of these conversations. In November, reform initiatives were on the ballot in about 20 states, yet not a single question focused on limiting or prohibiting certain police practices on youth. Very few states have regulations that require law enforcement agencies to distinguish treatment for children and youth — particularly when it comes to use of force — from that used on adults. And the states that do, are pushing requirements that are so limited (or vague) that they might as well not exist.
We can no longer accept tepid calls for police to use more “discretion” or “common sense” when dealing with children.
They don’t, and they won’t.
It’s urgent that law enforcement agencies across the nation adopt specific, evidence-based standards for how police treat children. They then must hold police officers accountable for adhering to those standards and enforce consequences when officers fail to do so.
We know that children and youth are different — physically, psychologically, emotionally, developmentally — from adults. That’s why a juvenile justice system exists. And why we don’t allow children to drink alcohol or sign legally binding contracts.
Their bodies cannot withstand the same level of force that most adult bodies can.
But it is on their psyches where police can inflict the most damage. Their brains are still developing, causing them to perceive, process and respond differently to stimuli than adults. The psychological damage caused by violent or negative interactions with police can be long lasting, affecting their school work, their ability to trust adults, their sleep and their overall sense of safety. Researchers emphasize that the effects of trauma are even greater when perpetrated by authority figures, like police, whom children are taught to trust.
The problem is worse for young girls of color. A mandate under a Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act requires the collection of data on police encounters. Much of the data that has been collected shows that youth of color are incarcerated at higher rates than white youth. And a 2017 Georgetown study reported the disproportionate use of force against Black girls and that Black children are often viewed with a bias that they are older.
A Rochester cop admonishing a 9-year-old for acting like child certainly fits into that negative framework.
The Rochester incident, unfortunately, is not an isolated one.
Another video, captured in August, involved police in Aurora, Colorado. This time, several young Black girls were mistreated — one of them only 6. They were on a “Sunday funday” trip to the nail salon and ice cream parlor with the 6-year-old’s mother and other young relatives. When the group discovered the salon was closed, they sat in the mother’s vehicle in a nearby parking lot looking, by phone, for another location. Suddenly, they were surrounded by armed police.
The officers commanded the mom and children out of the van. They handcuffed the mom and marched her to the other side of the vehicle to investigate whether it had been stolen. They also forced the girls — ages 6, 12, 14 and 17 — to lie face down on the hot pavement. Two of the girls were handcuffed. The other two, including the 6-year-old who wailed for her mother, were forced to hold their hands above their heads.
Eventually, the police discovered their mistake. The stolen car report they had received was actually for a motorcycle, with the same license plate number, but from a different state. Aurora Police Chief Vanessa Wilson offered up an apology: “We’re hoping that an officer is going to make the determination and say, ‘Hmm, something’s wrong here — I’m not going to put this little kid on the ground. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.”
She stated the officers had followed standard procedure, and that she would look into implementing better training for the force.
Why is making children lie on the ground, especially when they haven’t done nothing wrong, ever standard procedure?
Few law enforcement agencies provide training to recruits on child and adolescent psychology, de-escalation tactics for encounters with youth, or to recognize behavioral manifestations of trauma. A national report published by Strategies for Youth in 2017 showed that many academies spend only around 1% of total training hours on juvenile justice issues. Even during those few hours, the training focused overwhelmingly on juvenile legal issues, not on teaching officers how to de-escalate conflicts with teenagers. Little has changed since then.
The result: A 9-year-old, in obvious mental distress, is pepper-sprayed and will likely experience nightmares about her treatment at the hands of police for years.
And four children, including a 6-year-old, were forced to lie face down, at gun point, on hot tarmac, for riding in a vehicle police thought might have been stolen. Now, according to a lawsuit recently filed against the police chief and the officers in Aurora, the girls have trouble eating and sleeping and are in therapy.
Similar scenarios involving young people and police are taking place across the country, in red and blue states and in “progressive” and “conservative” counties. Only when these happen to be captured on video do police departments feel compelled to issue public apologies, often with a caveat that no official policies were violated.
Children are not mini adults. It’s time for police to stop admonishing a child for acting like one, and start to see and treat them for who they are.
Lisa H. Thurau is the founder and executive director of Strategies for Youth, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact.
Johanna Wald, is a freelance writer, researcher and consultant who has written book chapters and articles on issues related to implicit bias, the school-to-prison pipeline, racial disparities in the justice system, policing and prosecutorial reform. She is the former director of strategic planning for the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Injustice, and currently consults for FrameWorks Institute and Strategies for Youth.