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Excerpted from: Andrea L. Dennis, Good Cop-Bad Cop: Police Violence and the Child's Mind, 58 Howard Law Journal 811 (Spring, 2015)(56 Footnotes)(Full Document)


AndreaDennisPolice violence against citizens lately has gripped the nation's attention because of recent cases in Ferguson, Missouri; Staten Island, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Baltimore, Maryland; and elsewhere. Children in those communities and nationwide have been directly and indirectly exposed to these well-publicized incidences of police killings and the aftermath of those killings.

Exposure to police violence may cause children physical, cognitive, emotional, and social trauma. Moreover, the exposure may negatively influence children's mindsets regarding the criminal justice system and police.

Undoubtedly, these events of late are not the first and only instances in which children have been exposed to physically aggressive and violent law enforcement action. And they are unlikely to be the last instances in which youth will be subjected to police violence. They are, however, a call for action.

Federal law enforcement officials already devote significant resources to the widespread problem of children's exposure to violence. However, their efforts have been impoverished because they have failed to account for police violence and the negative impacts stemming from that violence. To thoroughly tackle the problem of children's exposure to violence, officials addressing the issue should collaborate with others focusing on reform of police-citizen interactions. Their concerted effort must then prioritize data collection respecting, and research regarding, the impact of police violence on children from infancy through late adolescence. Additionally, their work must generate evidence-based programming sensitive to youths' developing perspectives on the legal system and legal actors.



In 2010, United States Attorney General Eric Holder launched the Defending Childhood Initiative aimed at addressing children's exposure to violence. As part of the initiative, Holder established a national task force. Two years later, in December 2012, the task force issued a national report, which serves as “a blueprint for preventing children's exposure to violence and for reducing the negative effects experienced by children exposed to violence . . . across the United States.” In the report, violence is defined as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” More particularly, the report focuses on children who experience sexual or physical abuse, witness intimate partner or inter-familial violence, and experience or witness violence in community spaces. Thus, a child may be directly exposed to violence--as when the child is the target of the violence--or indirectly exposed--as when the child witnesses or observes the use of violence or “has lost a loved one to violence.”

As explained in the report, children who are exposed to violence can be traumatically affected in their immediate development and might face difficulties as they transition to adulthood. Among the litany of negative outcomes specifically identified are, in no particular order, physical illness, cognitive impairments, emotional and mental health problems, impaired interpersonal relationships, deviant sexual behavior, feelings of powerlessness, self-blame, hypervigilance, use of violent behavior, normalization of violent behavior, and criminal association and activity. Further, it is contended that juveniles who suffer negative outcomes can have short-term and long-term impacts on, and interactions with, public and private human services agencies and programs.

In addition to identifying and explaining the problem of children's exposure to violence, the task force offered many recommendations. In short, it proposed the development of a nationalized effort to end children's exposure to violence, consisting of federal involvement, youth inclusion, data collection and research, and development of evidence-based programming. More specifically, this nationalized effort would encourage (1) identification, assessment, and treatment of children exposed to violence; (2) prevention of in-home exposure through the creation of safe, nurturing homes; (3) reduction in community violence through identification of community challenges, resources, and strategies, the involvement of men and boys as well as law enforcement and schools, and putting an end to bullying; and (4) reformation of the juvenile justice system for violence-exposed youth.



Although comprehensive in its approach to the identified issue, the task force report is lacking in two respects. First, the task force should have included police violence among the types of violence that youth may be exposed to and traumatized by. Furthermore, task force officials failed to recognize that children exposed to violence-especially police violence-may be negatively socialized to distrust the criminal justice system and avoid law enforcement.


A. Omits Police as a Source of Violence

The task force report fails to acknowledge that children-including young children-are subjected to violent acts committed by law enforcement against citizens. The perpetrators of violence with whom the report is concerned include family members as well as community members such as peers, teachers, coaches, community leaders, gang members, and others engaged in criminal activities. The report does not recognize police officials as a source of violence-whether in homes or public spaces-and so law enforcement violence is seemingly excluded from consideration. This absence should be rectified. Children are subjected--personally and otherwise--to many different forms of violent police action in a variety of settings, and all encounters can be trauma inducing.

Police behavior that commonly would be viewed as violent encompasses a wide array of conduct. While recent national attention has focused on police killings of citizens, police violence should be broadly interpreted to include actual and threatened physically aggressive policing behavior. On one extreme police violence should embrace harassment or threats of serious bodily injury or death and on the other extreme it should include homicide of an individual. Examples along the spectrum between the extremes include, in no particular order, rough hand-cuffing; rough frisking; frisking under clothes; strip searching; tasering; pepper spraying; firing, pointing, or brandishing of a weapon; deployment of police dogs; pulling or pushing; stepping on; kicking; hitting with or without a physical object; and use of the chokehold.

Children learn about these violent police behaviors in many different ways and settings. Children, in their homes, experience police officers executing warrants or responding to emergency calls. Children observe police officers interacting with and arresting other individuals in public. Children themselves encounter police on the street or in school for investigatory or arrest purposes. While any of these interactions or observances may be relatively uneventful, violence can occur during these interactions and children can be exposed. Children are personally victims of police violence. In real-time, children observe others victimized by police. Even if they do not personally experience or witness police violence, children can overhear adult conversations regarding police violence. Finally, the 24-hour news stream, internet, and social media make it possible for children to repeatedly view and discuss video and photographic images of police violence and any aftermath.

It stands to reason that children exposed to all manner of police violence, whether directly or indirectly through those they know, may suffer many of the cognitive, emotional, and social harms earlier itemized in relation to other forms of violence to which children may be subjected. But even children who are far removed from the actual events and become aware of the violence through traditional media, social media, or conversation can be negatively impacted. Secondary trauma, also known as compassion fatigue, can result when a child learns about the traumatic experiences of others, including by watching news stories or images after the events have occurred. For these reasons, exposure must be broadly understood to include not just personal or semi-personal experience but larger awareness of societal events.


B. Overlooks the Effects of Police Violence on Children's Legal Socialization

In keeping with the report's failure to include exposure to police violence among its concerns, the report also neglects to consider the impact of police violence on children's development of trust in and respect for the law and law enforcement. More specifically, children exposed to police violence may develop a negative perception of law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In turn, this negative perception can affect their behavior toward law enforcement when young and later in adulthood. The report, however, does not consider this significant concern, and it should.

Children are developmental sponges, soaking up all manner of knowledge and norms during their formative years. Society wants children to trust in and respect the law, including legal enforcers such as the police. Thus, socialization into legal norms and the legal system begins in the earliest years of childhood. Public education campaigns--such as Officer Friendly and McGruff the Crime Dog to teach children from as young as three years of age that law enforcement is charged with protecting and serving the community, and children should call the police for help. Long-standing efforts to develop positive relations between children and the police include police visits to schools, mentoring programs and community-based programs.

Notwithstanding, children can be legally socialized to characterize law enforcement as a negative, not a positive. More pointedly, youth subjected to police violence may label law enforcement as the bad guys. At an early age, children become sophisticated learners able to handle complex information and experiences. Further, from an early age, children can discern negative interactions between individuals, and begin to categorize individuals and emotions positively and negatively. Consequently, even a young child who observes or learns of a police officer behaving in an aggressive manner may group law enforcement with other bad actors, characters or scenarios with which the child is familiar.

Moreover, police violence is probably especially likely to socialize children of color to be wary of police. Regardless of age, the victims of police brutality are overwhelmingly Black and brown. As compared to whites, Blacks are more likely to have indirect exposure to policing as a result of conversations with family, friends, and neighbors. Accordingly, children of color are more likely to become actual victims of police violence than white children, and children of color are more likely to be exposed to police violence perpetrated on people who look like them, whether friends or family or community members.

In addition to developing perceptions of law enforcement as illegitimate, research indicates that juveniles who have had negative exposure to the law interact with police in ways that affect safety and security. Adolescents who negatively view police make significant efforts to avoid them, including by flight if possible. In turn, law enforcement may chase the fleeing child and use physical force to subdue the child. Kids who cannot avoid interacting with the police may refuse or ignore police commands, verbally resist orders, or in the most extreme instances, physically resist. Finally, juveniles who have been victimized refuse to call the police for assistance. Any of these types of law enforcement-citizen interactions--or lack of interaction-- manifests a breakdown in trust and respect and can put the lives of citizens and police at risk.



To address the identified inadequacies of the task force report, several steps should occur. As a preliminary matter, from a structural perspective, a coordinated response should be undertaken. Future government efforts targeted toward alleviating children's exposure to violence should work in tandem with those government efforts targeting the reform of police behavior. For instance, the Defending Childhood Initiative might implement the findings and recommendations of, as well as work with programs resulting from, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which President Obama created in response to the national uproar over citizen killings by police in Ferguson, Staten Island, and Cleveland to “provide an effective partnership between law enforcement and local communities that reduces crime and increases trust . . . .” Once government officials have coordinated their work, they should then partner with non-governmental institutions to address this problem.

After the collaborative structure is created, two goals should be established: evidence collection and analysis, and programming creation. Present and future efforts to gather data from children on violence exposure exist, yet those efforts should be expanded to capture information regarding children's exposure to police violence. Further, the collection process should utilize the broad definition of police violence and capture the variety of means of exposure described herein. Slight efforts on this front have already begun. The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing heard testimony from five individuals regarding their interactions with and resulting perceptions of law enforcement when young. In light of these anecdotal reports, the interim report recommended that children's voices be included in efforts to reform police-citizen interactions.

While the information obtained by the Task Force on 21st Century Policing is enlightening with respect to children's responses to police interactions, it merely touches the surface. Researchers must undertake systematic and critical data gathering and analysis. More specifically, centers and programs for childhood studies are ideal institutions in which to conduct this intensive study of children's exposure to police violence. Childhood studies is an emerging field of research in American institutions. Whether multi- or inter-disciplinary in nature, childhood studies incorporates both humanistic and social science approaches to studying children and their lives. These programs bring together researchers in different disciplines to coordinate, leverage, and sometimes integrate knowledge and efforts to address the problems of children.

With this new research in hand, reformers should then incorporate this information into innovative, data-driven programming that positively educates children about police, fosters positive youth-police relationships and, in a developmentally appropriate manner, helps children understand the complexities of law enforcement work. Existing, traditional one-dimensional police characters and fleeting police-youth education and mentoring programs apparently have proven to be insufficient to overcome the problems resulting from children's exposure to police violence. Consequently, officials should aim to develop novel, evidence-based programming promoting a culture in which children and police are mutually understood, respected, and trusted, not maligned, feared, and endangered.

Community-based programs will be helpful to gathering data as well as developing and implementing novel programming. One promising private program already in existence--Strategies for Youth (SFY)--is well-positioned to assist with the proposals made herein and serves as an example of the type of organization that may target this issue. SFY is a national organization with the mission of improving police-youth relations by training law enforcement officers regarding juvenile development, mental health, and perceptions of police, as well as providing support for community efforts to develop positive law enforcement-juvenile relations. Currently, it provides general training to law enforcement on how to interact with youth when approaching them in public for questioning or investigation, when arresting them, or when arresting their parent. SFY also offers specialized training on how law enforcement should interact with children who have been chronically exposed to familial or community violence. Pedagogically, SFY uses juveniles from the relevant community to assist in the training. Thus, SFY grasps the importance of trauma exposure and prior police interactions as a factor influencing children's responses to police. Also, SFY recognizes that citizens--including youth--can play a role in training law enforcement. For these reasons, SFY is ideally suited to gather information from children and other interested adults regarding the effect of police violence on children and transmit this knowledge to researchers and the larger community. Moreover, expansion of SFY's current training slate to attend to the effect of police violence on children's perceptions of and responses to law enforcement is not untenable in light of its history and experience.

In closing, reformers focused on children's exposure to violence fail to account for the impact of police violence on children. This shortcoming must be redressed. Children exposed to police violence face physical, social, emotional, and cognitive harms similar to children exposed to other forms of violence from other sources. Moreover, they also can be legally socialized to mistrust the police. These negative effects can impede children's abilities to become healthy productive citizens who participate fully in society and receive its benefits. Rather, they may become fearful, suspicious, and avoidant. But it need not be this way. A collaborative government-backed effort involving childhood studies researchers, children's advocates, and police reformers can help children learn to trust the police and train the police to more effectively serve their youngest constituents and the larger community.

Associate Professor of Law, University of Georgia School of Law.