On Friday, one of the nation’s preeminent scientists on race and policing and a top juvenile public defender in Washington, D.C., had a public discussion that started with a controversial, yet familiar policing scenario. It’s one that advocates and experts believe illustrates the roots of the nation’s crises over mass incarceration and police violence in Black communities — particularly for adolescents — and the challenges facing the incoming Biden administration in responding to last year’s nationwide protests over those issues.
Police pull up next to two Black teenagers. The boys have not been accused of a crime, nor even unusual behavior. The officers nonetheless ask them first if they heard gunshots, and then to lift shirts to show their waistbands. The boys comply, revealing no weapons, but the officers then request a full-body search. Without protest, the boys place their palms against a building and get patted down.
It was not a hypothetical. One of the featured guests, Kristin Henning, Bloom Professor of Law at Georgetown University and head of the school’s juvenile justice clinic, represented one of the boys in court and frequently sees cases where young clients behave this way.
Why did the boys submit to a police search that they were constitutionally entitled to decline? It’s a question often confronting public defenders for youth, Henning said on the virtual forum hosted by Georgetown’s law school, entitled “The Dehumanization of Children of Color: Rethinking Policing and Policy.”
“Because they were going to frisk us anyway, and if we ran they were just going to shoot us in the back,” she said, quoting her client to the keynote guest during last week’s discussion, the Yale University psychology professor Phillip Atiba Goff.
How does race inform police interactions like her client’s, a common one in her 25 years representing youth and often the first step toward deeper system involvement? That was the question Henning, Goff and other panelists discussed on the Friday forum.
Other participants included Washington, D.C.’s progressive local lawmakers and law enforcement, including district attorney Karl Racine, who has implemented a series of reforms to ease the consequences of police contact for youth, and to make them more developmentally appropriate. Samantha Davis, the founder and executive director of Black Swan Academy, which trains youth in advocacy and has led the push to remove police from Wahington’s public schools, also participated.
“We are quite honestly lagging when it comes to directly addressing the front end of policing and the encounters that police and young people have every day,” she said, emphasizing schools as a key entrypoint to police interaction for too many youth. “How do we reduce the footprint of policing in our communities and schools? D.C. has not been leading in that regard.”
Goff has become a widely cited public intellectual on the topic of race and criminal justice over the past decade, founding one of the largest think tanks on race and policing, the Center for Policing Equity, which runs the world’s largest collection of police behavior data.
On Friday, and in other recent writings since the explosion of racial justice protests last year over the police killing of George Floyd, he emphasized that individual psychological factors are only “aggravating factors” in racist outcomes in policing. They are not the whole story behind high-profile, videotaped incidents like the police killing of the 12 year-old Black boy Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, or the recent pepper spraying of a Black 9-year-old girl in Rochester, New York.
He also rejected that the solution is training to help individual police officers unlearn explicit or unconscious racial bias, which police departments and other institutions have invested hundreds of millions on in recent years. He said that training can only help “a little bit.”
“I gotta say, that theory of racism, while it’s popular and it sells books, and it frames a great deal of what happens when we talk about race in America, it’s neither what the science says, nor is it the experience of Black folk,” he said.
Goff previously delivered remarks to former President Barack Obama’s 2015 commission on race and policing. Another panelist speaking later Friday described the commission’s final recommendations as a blueprint for reform that President Joe Biden’s White House should pursue. Some of the Obama commission’s recommendations might have affected Henning’s young clients: for example, that police be required to explain a suspect’s right to refuse a search, absent a warrant or probable cause.
“That report and the implementation guide that followed had a series of really important recommendations that we can build off of,” said Michael Umpierre, a senior fellow at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown, pointing out how most police cadets spend a fraction of their training on developmentally appropriate treatment of youth. “They get at this notion of community policing, at changing the culture of policing so that we’re incorporating a developmental approach.”
He added that the Department of Justice can play a key role setting a reform agenda and elevating best practices. For Goff and others who spoke Friday, the real key for understanding them is the racist origins and history of policing, and to consider factors beyond policing, such as chronic underfunding in many Black communities.
“The mission of policing begins in this country — the formal mission — with regulating the movement of enslaved former Africans and their defendants,” Goff said as Henning nodded along. “Who had the job of enforcing racist laws? It would be law enforcement. At no point between emancipation and the present moment have we said ‘those systems are jacked up. We should be doing something different than that.’”
He stressed that policing and the law has changed dramatically since that time and does not look the same. But we never made a “clean break,” abolishing the remnants of slavery in the institutions that outlived it, which he said include American policing.
He drew a parallel to the modern-day officers who searched Henning’s client, essentially submitting the two Black children to having their “papers checked,” to monitor their movements.
“That’s a mission issue,” he said, referring to early American law enforcement’s role in policing fugitive slaves, and enforcing segregation after the Civil War. “It’s too easy to make two officers of four officers bad people, but the reality is we have all consented to law enforcement continuing in that mission.”
On the panel following Henning’s dialogue with Goff, participants Umpierre and others echoed concerns based on the Yale scholar’s research about the “adultification” of Black youth by civil society.
“Police treat Black children like adults, and treat them harshly — including handcuffing them in public,” said district attorney Racine, who said he recently made his attorneys available 24 hours a day on a hotline to guide police on de-escalating conflicts that otherwise might result in youth being handcuffed. The hotline has received more than 300 calls.
Henning praised Racine’s use of deferred prosecution agreements to significantly reduce the number of youth formally prosecuted, and Umpierre called the broader set of reforms that Washington’s city council had passed nationally significant.
Still, Henning noted, the challenge remains stark: 92% of children arrested in D.C. are Black, even though only 73% of the city’s youth population between 10 and 17 is Black.
“This is such an important moment in time in our history, where there’s more important recognition of the importance of race equity than I think we have seen in decades,” said Umpierre, speaking of what the Biden White House should aim to do. “The administration should be leveraging that, capitalizing it, and moving actionable reform.”