Working better with young people E-mail
At a recent session for recruits enrolled in a training academy, one of the instructors had this to say to the students in the class: "What I am telling you today we did not get when we were in the academy. You're lucky because now you've got a leg up in dealing with kids out on the street. Knowing this stuff makes working with youngsters easier and less stressful and believe me, they can be stressful."

This instructor was as right as he was unusual; unusual because training in best practices so cops can better work with young people is the exception rather than the rule.

A just released report by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) indicates that despite the pressing need, very few law enforcement agencies offer training to their sworn personnel on the best and most effective ways to deal with young people.

The report was based on the IACP survey, "2011 Juvenile Justice Training Needs Assessment." The data revealed that police chiefs want to offer training on juvenile issues to their officers but the lack of funding and resources is preventing them from doing it.

The chiefs surveyed were pretty specific about the most important areas they felt their officers needed training in, including substance abuse; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; better ways to deal with chronic juvenile offenders; training to deal with bullying and specifically cyber-bullying; and gangs. Other topics included internet offending, runaways, and school safety.

The survey is notable for the unusually large size of the sample: over 672 law enforcement officers, in 404 law enforcement agencies, in 49 states and the District of Columbia were surveyed. The agencies represented the gamut of departments, from small and rural, to suburban, to large and urban.

Demands on law enforcement

While officers have always been integrally involved with children and even more so with teenagers, lately they have been asked to get more involved than in the past. Cuts in programs serving youngsters, the rise of officers working in schools, and the recent propensity to call the police in to deal with any youth-related issues have all added to the increased burden on law enforcement when it comes to our younger population.

The new phenomenon of "flash mobs" and the difficulties surrounding incidents with racial and cultural overtones that turn violent where there is the impression that the police overreacted can compromise the agency's legitimacy in the community.

Officers deal with people during the most traumatic events of their lives and young people are no exception.

Most officers and deputies are not trained to recognize signs of trauma or anxiety in youngsters and they have never been schooled on the best practices for dealing young people who are in trouble.

Today, law enforcement officers are the people most likely to be called in to deal with neglected and abused youngsters, and they shoulder the responsibility for helping them cope with the trauma they suffer.

Where is the training?

More than half the chiefs surveyed by the IACP reported a sharp decline or even elimination of programs that helped the police work more effectively with the nation's younger population. This is a serious problem when one considers that people under the age of 19 represent one-sixth of the U.S. population.

One solution is to begin incorporating more training on dealing with young people into the curriculum at our nation's law enforcement academies.

Those responding to the IACP survey noted that this type of training is not offered nor do agencies have written guidelines or standard operating procedures for incidents involving the younger population.


Solutions

The federal government needs to step into the breach. The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is best positioned to fill this void, albeit the least well-funded.

State, county and local training organizations need to develop curriculum on this subject and include it as part of their mandated academy and in-service training.

Lisa H. Thurau is a member of the IACP's Juvenile Justice Committee and the executive director of Strategies for Youth, an organization dedicated to improving police/youth interactions through the Policing the Teen Brain training program and building police departments' capacity to use best practices when working with children and youth. For more information visit www.strategiesforyouth.org.


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