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Essay: Kids' Perceptions of the Police

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Monday's protest in Milwaukee was designed to call attention to what demonstrators say is a criminal justice system that has historically been violent to African-Americans.  

Lake Effect essayist - and criminal justice professor Tina Freiburger says it's crucial to build up a culture of trust between the police and the youngest members of a community:

When you were a teenager, did you like the police? A lot of kids don't. But most kids also know very little about police work and why it's important to like police officers, or at least understand why police do what they do.

For the past four years, I've been evaluating a Milwaukee Police Department program that teaches youth about police work, with the goal of improving police and juvenile relations in Milwaukee.

While working on this research project at a Boys and Girls Clubs in Milwaukee one of the teenagers looked at me and asked, "Come on, when you were a kid, did you really like the police?"

His question made me take pause for a second because my response was...well, no, I really didn't. Growing up in a small rural town, there was not much real crime to speak of. My friends and I viewed police as more of a nuisance...someone who told us to turn down our car radios after school or to go home when it was approaching curfew. Talking to teenagers and remembering my own views of police at that age made negative perceptions of the police seem pretty normal.

So, with all the issues surrounding youth, should we care if they like the police? Well, the answer is yes, we should care, because the relationship between youths' views of the police and their likelihood of obeying the law are actually related. Research shows that individuals with negative perceptions of the police do not view the criminal justice system or the police as legitimate, and, in turn, are less likely to comply with the law. These individuals are also less likely to cooperate with police-initiated crime reduction strategies.

Both common sense and research tell us that, compared to adults, juveniles have more negative perceptions of the police, with urban minority juveniles having the most negative perceptions. Given this, it's not surprising that in cities as large as Milwaukee, hostile exchanges between juveniles and police occur. These exchanges could go something like this: A youth with a negative perception of the police becomes hostile during a standard police encounter. In turn, the police rectify the situation with formal police action. In the end, the youth enters the criminal justice system.

If juveniles' negative perceptions of the police can be changed, then some juvenile offending can potentially be prevented, community policing efforts can garner more support and be more effective, and some juveniles can hopefully be prevented from entering the system.

Although youths' views of the police have not been a top priority of law enforcement agencies in the past, some departments have recognized the importance of good police youth relations. For instance, the Milwaukee Police Department's STOP program - an acronym for Students Talking it Over with Police - helps police and youths create dialogue, so they can build positive relationships through understanding. Evaluations of STOP have found that youths in the program learn a lot about police work, sch as why police stop people on the streets, why police ask the questions they ask, and why police might pat down a person before asking questions. They also form better perceptions of the police, are more willing to cooperate with police, and view the police as fairer than they did prior to the program.

Although poor police-juvenile relations is a multifaceted problem which requires an equally complex solution, the STOP program is a promising step in the right direction. As the program continues to expand across the city, it is hoped that the overall climate between police and juveniles will begin to improve.

Lake Effect essayist Tina Freiburger is an associate professor of criminal justice at UW-Milwaukee Helen Bader School of Social Welfare.