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Not just kid stuff: Handling juveniles on patrol

From the switchblade-wielding “JDs” of the 1950s to the 9mm-packing “boyz” of today, police have always had a special relationship with youthful offenders. Immaturity makes many kids naturally brash and impulsive, while at the same time their young age limits the range of penalties available in the criminal justice system for deterring their behavior. Juveniles get much of their personal identity and self-esteem through their peers and may feel compelled to put on a tough attitude, to “not let those cops push me around.” Also, for juveniles who have been mistreated by family members, school authorities, neighborhood merchants and other adults, the police may become the symbolic surrogate authoritarian focal point for all their rage and resentment. Unfortunately, many of these youths may have had unpleasant clashes with law enforcement in the past, which only serves to further poison their attitude toward the next police encounter.

As with all citizens encountered on patrol, your interaction with juvenile subjects will have repercussions for future officers who deal with these youths. This is all the more so for juveniles because their ideas, conceptions and opinions of police may still be forming, and how you handle an encounter may have a powerful effect in influencing their lifelong perception of the law and its representatives.

Dealing with potentially dangerous juvenile behavior

As with all citizens, your general attitude should convey a combination of courtesy, respect and firm, no-nonsense commitment to enforcing the law. Especially because juveniles are quick to size up adult insecurities, it is important to remember the difference between authoritativeness and authoritarianism – think of the contrasting styles of TV’s Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor: calm, commanding presence = authoritative, vs. Deputy Barney Fife’s blustery, defensive posturing = authoritarian.

Part of respect is giving your full attention. No matter how young the suspected offender is, actively listen to what he or she is saying. If he or she appears to be making poor excuses, take them seriously and explain why you do or do not accept the reasons. If more than one officer is present, avoid talking about the juvenile as if he or she is not there. Also, kids may be more concrete and sensitive to disrespect than adults, so be careful about making even innocent, well-meaning jokes, which may be taken as an insult by a young subject.

In terms of actual enforcement, use your discretion. Strictness or leniency may depend on the subject and the situation. No one can tell you not to enforce the law, but there may be times that you feel that by overlooking a minor infraction, you may accrue a trove of good will that can lead to greater cooperation and less trouble in the future. On the other hand, you always have to be careful not to be played for a chump, thereby eroding your authority and encouraging future escalating lawlessness by showing a juvenile that he or she can get away with misbehavior. As in most discretionary situations, use your training, your judgment and your experience with the neighborhood culture of your patrol area.

Controlling teenage crowds

A common scenario that illustrates the role of crisis prevention involves groups of male teenagers who may be congregated in a particular area. As yet, they may not necessarily be engaged in any illegal activity, but they comprise a volatile mix of adolescent hormones, boredom, immaturity and impulsivity, perhaps fueled by alcohol or drug use. To complicate matters, there may be a rival group or gang in the neighborhood, and the present crowd might be waiting for them to show up for a fight. The size of such youthful crowds may range from a handful to hundreds, as in a concert or other outdoor event. Officers may receive a call based on a citizen complaint or they may come upon the scene in the course of their patrol. The officers’ task is now to disperse this crowd before trouble escalates. Typically, dispersing and leaving are the last things these youths want to do.

The available literature on this topic suggests a model intervention protocol for dealing with potential juvenile aggression and youthful crowds, which should be flexibly adapted to the needs of each individual situation. To begin with, if nothing explosive has yet occurred, a little planning and preparation can make a big difference. When getting the call or coming upon the scene, decide how much backup you may need and whether medical services might be required. Crowd control is almost never something a single officer should try to handle alone, although there may be exceptions in small communities where citizens and police know one another well. Too little backup risks the responding officers being intimidated and overwhelmed. Too much of a premature show of force may give the impression of an invading armada, sparking anger and retaliation.

For a typical small or medium-sized crowd, have one or more officers slowly approach about eight to 10 feet from the crowd’s edge, while a few more officers hang back to observe the scene. Address the youths directly; don’t talk about individuals in the third person as if they’re not present. Opinions diverge on how best to deal with apparent ringleaders or big-mouths in the crowd who may be instigating trouble or advising the crowd to “stand up to these cops.” Some authorities advocate ignoring the leaders and engaging two or three peripheral group members in conversation to distract and deflect the crowd’s attention from the leader. In my police academy training classes, most of the officers presented with this scenario tend to disagree. Their experience is that, essentially, “the best way to kill the beast is to chop off its head,” that is, go directly for the leader and “talk him down or take him down.” Again, much will depend on the particular situation. In either case, however, whether dealing primarily with the leader or peripheral group members, there is a better and worse way of doing this.

The worse way is to make an unnecessarily flashy show of force, humiliating the leader and virtually forcing him to resist you in order to save face in front of his minions. Remember, your agenda may be to neutralize him as quickly as possible, but at that moment he doesn’t care about being arrested, physically restrained or going to jail. All he’s thinking right now is: How’s this going to look in front of my people? And so he will fight to the bitter end, and the more force you need to subdue him, the more the crowd will become agitated and hostile, risking a full-scale riot.

To avoid unnecessarily risking your own and others’ safety, the better way of handling this situation is to confront either the leader or a peripheral member in a way that allows him to save face by contributing to the de-escalation of the situation – in a sense, making a treaty between equals. Your style of interaction should be firm but not grim, neither Officer Friendly nor Officer Hardass. If you have been called in response to a citizen complaint, there is no need to mention this fact, which will only give the crowd members something more to argue about (“We were not too loud,” or, “She’s crazy, she always complains about everything”). In general, explain but don’t justify – that is, tell the crowd what you want them to do, but don’t get into disputes about the rightness or wrongness of your request. If crowd members want to express their opinion in a reasonably civilized way, use a little reflective listening, if only to encourage the idea that dialogue is a viable alternative to force; however, be careful to observe the line between venting and ranting, and don’t allow inflammatory speech to further incite the crowd.

If the youths are violating a specific law or ordinance, such as public safety, inform them of this and don’t argue about it. If any further explanation is necessary, frame your actions in terms of ensuring everyone’s safety. Don’t lecture, sermonize or admonish them; you’re not their pastor or parent. Don’t take it or make it personal; act professionally at all times. Make fact-based descriptive statements, and emphasize I-statements rather than you-statements:

Not: “This little party’s getting out of hand. You guys better move or else.” Rather: “Guys, this crowd is too big to be hanging out on this corner; it’s not safe and it’s violating Ordinance XYZ with regard to public safety. I need you to move away so people and cars can get by.”

Initially, state your instructions without consequences. Rather than rely on threats up front (which will probably have minimal effect anyway), convey the message that it is your authority as a police officer and general force of the law and common sense (that is, safety) that are the primary justifications for your directives. If crowd members continue to ignore or resist, then state the consequences clearly, and make sure you’re prepared to back them up:

“Guys, I told you what I need you to do. If you leave the area now, our business is done. But if you don’t start moving out, we’re going to make arrests. So what’s it going to be, guys, are we going to have an easy night here or not?”

As in most situations, don’t lie – remember the rule about repeat customers: You’ll probably be dealing with these kids again. If it comes to that, call for backup and use necessary force to control the scene, keeping in mind the twin paramount goals of enforcing the law and keeping everyone as safe as possible. Although interaction styles may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, a calm and respectful, yet firm and no-nonsense approach to citizen encounters generally fits the description of authoritative policing and is almost always the best initial approach to dealing with citizens of all types.

To learn more about these topics:


Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

NOTE:  If you have a question for this column, please submit it to this Web site.

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