by Marc Schindler
The shooting death of Michael Brown, a young African-American man, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., has rightly caused the nation to look once again at troubling issues of race and justice. The tragedy has also prompted a number of calls for changes to policing practices.
Among many of the policing practice changes being suggested, hiring and retention practices that could diversify the police force have been floated as a strategy that may have prevented the incident.
The science on policing doesn’t give us a clear roadmap here. We don’t know if a more diverse police force or even a police force that reflects the racial and ethnic make-up of a community would have prevented what happened in Ferguson or in any other city or town in the U.S.
As was reported in The Week after the Ferguson shooting, Thomas Wydra, police chief of Hamden, Conn., says he’s working to increase diversity in his ranks because, when police officers “look like” the people in the community where they work, “that gives the department legitimacy.”
Would diversifying the police force have helped prevent the tragedy at Ferguson? There is some evidence that black police officers and white police officers behave in similar ways and that the community sees the color of the uniform before the color of the officer’s skin.
An analysis of police practices in St. Petersburg, Fla., and Indianapolis, in the 1990s showed that there is no difference in police coercive behavior between black and white police officers, regardless of the racial composition of the neighborhood. Another qualitative study of police in Cincinnati showed that there are differences in arrest behavior related to the race of the officer: White officers were more likely to make arrests, overall, but black officers were more likely to arrest black suspects.
In short, whether diversifying our police forces would help reduce the likelihood of these types of tragedies is complicated and open to debate.
There are more straightforward approaches to reducing the likelihood of the types of dangerous interactions we are seeing all too often between law enforcement and young people of color across the U.S., and it is grounded in the science of what works.
The National Academy of Sciences in its 2013 report on advancing juvenile justice reform called for effective training and education of staff in the principles of adolescent development. In other words, anyone working with young people in the context of the justice system should understand what makes young people tick; how they are developmentally different from adults; and how best to interact with young people in ways that prevent unnecessary power struggles and avoidable violent incidents.
I saw the practical applications of the need for training with my staff when I helped lead the Washington, D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS) from 2005-2010. Like many urban juvenile justice agencies, staff working in corrections facilities run by DYRS mirrored the youth locked up in our facilities. The staff and young people were almost 100 percent African-American.
Even though the staff and the young people looked the same, it did not prevent miscommunication and significant abusive and assaultive behavior on the part of the staff.
Of course, the disproportionate representation of youth of color in our secure facilities is a tragedy unto itself. But, when young people of color are in facilities, rehabilitation and empowerment is often easier when staff is of the same cultural background with an understanding of where our young people come from. As a result, juvenile departments around the country have sought to diversify their staff.
We also know that the likelihood that youth are abused within those facilities has much more to do with effective training of staff and the investments we are making in our youth than whether the staff and youth are the same race and ethnicity.
That’s why we brought in the Maya Angelou Academy to provide an outstanding educational program, included music and arts in the programming, and worked hard to have all staff – from those who worked in secure facilities, to our maintenance and culinary staff, to our director – trained in the principles of adolescent development.
Supporting more effective training of staff turned out to be a sound strategy. Staff learned to deescalate a tense situation with a teenager versus using physical force to control a situation and intimidate the young person, and how to create an environment of trust so that hard conversations could take place between youth and adults.
Before, if a youth spit in the face of a guard, he would’ve been physically and aggressively restrained and then thrown in isolation, only to emerge angrier and more disrespectful than before. Under the new approach, staff would wipe their face, cool down while someone else talked with the youth, and then regroup to have a conversation about respect and appropriate behavior.
The latter approach is a lot harder, but resulted in a dramatic reduction in physical altercations between staff and youth.
Ironically, one of the leading states in working effectively with challenging youth is Missouri. The “Missouri Model”, as it is known, has been recognized throughout the country for its success in employing a youth-centered, strength-based approach to working with young people in the juvenile justice system.
Missouri’s front-line juvenile corrections staff, known as Youth Development Specialists, receive intensive training and become experts in establishing trusting relationships with youth as a way to achieve safety.
The approach we saw in Ferguson, using military-style vehicles and equipment in about as coercive a manner as one could imagine, was the complete opposite of Missouri’s acclaimed approach to working with youth in their juvenile justice system.
In fact, had the state deployed a cadre of Missouri’s youth development specialists to interact with the protesters instead of heavily armed police, the result would almost surely have been a calm and respectful situation similar to what one witnesses in their juvenile facilities throughout the state.
There may be some benefits to creating police forces that look like the communities they police, but we will achieve much bigger change when we shift away from military-style, punitive policing as a means of making communities safe, and instead focus on the kinds of positive investments, like education and work, that make our communities safe.
Investments like those, along with effective training for police officers, open the door for police departments that are trained in adolescent development and can connect with the whole community.
Marc Schindler is the Executive Director of the Justice Policy Institute.