The killing of George Floyd by a police officer and the subsequent protests around the country have fueled a national introspection about law enforcement in America.
A professor at Arizona State University has shown in previous research that young peoples’ perceptions of law enforcement officers have declined dramatically over the past few years. That 2019 study also found that across the last decade, youth of color -- and Black youths in particular -- have consistently reported worse perceptions of legal authority than white youths.
In his latest research, Adam Fine, an assistant professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, explores how those attitudes diverge by race at a young age, and how a specific community-service partnership program called Team Kids can change youths' views toward police officers. His paper, “Police Legitimacy: Identifying Developmental Trends and Whether Youths' Perceptions Can be Changed,” was published recently in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.
The study had two parts. First, the researchers and their community partners surveyed nearly 1,000 children about their views of police to see differences by age. Second, they did a randomized control trial to examine the effects of Team Kids in Compton, Calif.
Fine answered some questions about the research project, which he did with PhD student Kathleen Padilla.
Question: Why look at young people’s perceptions of law enforcement?
Answer: We’re in an era where law enforcement agencies are having a difficult time recruiting new police officers.
Not only that, but it’s a reality in many jurisdictions around the nation that police departments don’t represent the communities they’re supposed to be serving, racially or ethnically.
We’re thinking, based on our research, that because youth of color may perceive police poorly, they may be less likely to want to become police officers when they grow up.
Q: At what age does that occur?
A: A lot of the research tends to focus on adults, and time and again we find that among adults of color, perceptions of law enforcement are worse than among white people.
My previous research looked at high school seniors, finding similar patterns. But kids are coming into contact with law enforcement much earlier than age 18.
So for this study, we looked across almost 1,000 kids ages 7 to 14 years old in Southern California to see whether the racial and ethnic differences can be traced to childhood, and we found that the differences in kids’ perception of law enforcement actually begins to emerge during childhood.
In the earliest age in our study, age 7, there were no racial or ethnic differences between white, Black and Hispanic or Latinx kids.
White kids’ perceptions appear to be relatively stable from 7 to 14.
In comparison, Latinx kids’ perceptions begin to decline around age 9 and decline year after year at a rapid rate.
Black and African-American kids' perceptions of law enforcement begin declining year after year even at the earliest ages we sampled, beginning at ages 7 to 8.
Peoples’ perceptions of law enforcement begin to develop, to change and maybe even to crystallize during childhood.
Q: What is Team Kids?
A: It’s one of the only safe, structured, nonenforcement, nonsurveillance-related programs where youth and first responders volunteer to work together on community service. The police are not there to enforce the law, prevent crime or to interview for documentation status.
They’re there to help be a resource to the kids, so the kids can find ways to be a resource to their communities in ways that the kids find to be meaningful and valuable.
It’s really about community service and community engagement.
The kids are in fourth to seventh grade. They volunteer to meet in small groups with law enforcement officers and identify challenges like hunger, homelessness, abandoned animals or writing letters to veterans. They work on these issues week after week and then they plan and put on a fundraising carnival for the entire school with free or low-cost games they can put on themselves.
It’s a remarkably creative process.
Q: How did you test the effect of Team Kids on the kids’ perceptions?
A: We used a randomized control trial, working with administrators in the Compton Unified School District. We asked them to identify two pairs of schools, matched as much as possible on every characteristic. Then we randomly assigned two schools to be the controls and two to receive the “treatment,” the Team Kids five-week program.
Just like a medical trial, we wanted to see the effects of the program. We surveyed the kids before and after the program in the treatment schools and on the same days in the control schools.
What we found is that even using this rigorous type of design, the program seems to improve kids’ perception of law enforcement.
Q: So should all schools adopt Team Kids?
A: Every school that has done the program wants to bring it back, and when a program starts at a school, even more kids volunteer to participate the following year.
But let's take a step back. Programs like this are not going fix biased and unjust policing because they are not designed to do so. The first step to building police legitimacy is to focus on improving procedural justice and reducing biased policing practices. These programs should not, under any circumstances, replace those practices and trainings.
Fundamentally, law enforcement must be about serving the community. At its core, this is a community-service program that empowers kids and officers together.
What this does suggest is if a community is willing and ready to enable police to work with them in a context where everyone feels safe and supported, we can begin transforming the role of police into community-service agents.
Q: What about school resource officers?
A: This is not a program arguing for or against having police in school. Because that's not the focus of the research, the findings do not extend to school resource officers.
The officers in Team Kids are not teaching or handling disputes or graffiti on school grounds or discipline.
Q: What about the officers in the program?
A: So far we’ve been talking about kids’ perceptions of law enforcement. Kathleen Padilla is leading an effort to interview the officers participating in the program in Compton, Calif., and also in Tempe to find out how it impacts them.
This is not yet published, but we’re looking at a variety of outcomes: How is this changing your perception of the kids, and how is this impacting your view of the community in general? Is this promoting or undermining how close you feel to those communities?
We’re getting really rich and powerful quotes.
The quotes indicate that it's transforming the way law enforcement views themselves, their jobs and the community. As an example, one said, "It kind of reminds me that I'm just one piece of the community. It's not the police and the community. We're connected."
They become community-service agents for at least a few hours every day. If we could have every cadet go through this, where they get to know the community and where the core part of the job becomes about making the community better and they’re there as a support to make a difference, we could have a very different force.
Top photo courtesy Pixabay