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Report: MA 3rd Worst in Country for Police Training

Thursday, February 14, 2013


A recent report from Strategies for Youth shows Mass. is drastically underfunding police training programs to teach officers how to deal with youth, resulting in unequal treatment.

The Cambridge-based group recently published a national study on the presence of police in the lives of youth, and the training provided to officers on how to properly deal with youth offenders. Lisa Thurau, Executive Director at Strategies for Youth, said that the state’s legislative commission has admitted there is a lack of funding.

“Police officers are not getting a lot of support to learn how to work with youth, and don’t know alternatives to arrest. They need that support,” she said. “We know that police are gatekeepers. They determine which gate or door that child will pass through. The more they know about alternatives to arrest, the better the outcome.”

Thurau said that mental health, race, gender, and geographic issues all lead to youth being unfairly treated by officers, something that a city like Worcester surely sees a lot of.

“Police are not given this information and are not told juvenile law. Often there is no service training except for departments that are wealthy, so this issue is especially harsh in cities where departments don’t have money to provide extra training,” she said.

Rose Pavlov, founder and president of Ivy Child International agreed that the current situation needs a fix, "The need for competent youth officials in law enforcement is absolutely critical to aid in reducing the rise of youth crimes. The current trend that does not provide an educational arena for police officials to develop the essential skills towards appropriate interactions with juveniles is detrimental."

Ivy Child focuses on alternative solutions for children with behavioral issues and a goal-oriented outlook.

MA Numbers

According to numbers provided by the state’s Special Commission on Massachusetts Police Training, Massachusetts allocated $187 per officer, the lowest in the country in 2010, and Thurau said that the Bay State remains near the bottom in per capita training funding.

“Being arrested and going into juvenile detention is a very traumatic experience for youth,” she said. “If you see youth going there, the general thought is that the court system has a lot of options, and that’s just not true anymore.”

“In reality, there are not a lot a lot of programs and not a lot for the judge to choose from. It is shameful that you have to arrest a child to get that help, something true in urban areas of Massachusetts and the rest of the country.”

The report published by Strategies for Youth says that out of the full training program for Mass. police officers, Juvenile Justice training hours as percentage of total required academy hours only make up 1 percent – 8 hours out of a total 800.

The report used many criteria to judge each state’s programs, such as the inclusion of various components. Juvenile Justice Academy curriculum content in Mass. does not include Development and Psychology, Adolescent Mental Health Issues, Discion Making and Teen Group Dynamics, Demographic Issues, Cultural Influences, or Asserting Authority Effectively, all but one of the components.

"The expansive utilization of law enforcement to address school disciplinary measures, school arrests, and lock up facilities for detention of sorts, marginalize the nation’s most at-risk youth," said Pavlov. "The result yields as limiting or all together ceasing their access to education. This trend which impedes a child’s right to education leads them down a path of failure, isolation and traumas."

The study points out, however, that while officers do not receive proper training, detention officers and the Mass. Bay Transit Authority’s Police Department received good marks.

According to the report, the state’s juvenile detention officers are required to be trained to understand adolescent behavior, the troubled teen, juvenile versus adult inmates, communication with youth detainees, and mentor roles for officers.

The MBTA’s deparment was listed under the study’s list of “Model Programs That Get Good Grades.”

“The MBTA Transit Police operate a recruit training academy, one of 7 regional academies overseen by the Municipal Police Training Council in Massachusetts,” the report reads. “Since 2011, the MBTA academy has provided officers with 8 to 12 hours of training on the teen brain and recognizing and appropriately responding to youth with mental health issues. It has also given them an opportunity to observe teens’ responses.”

Thurau said that overall, “Massachusetts is overall kinder and gentler than other states,” but that recent measures captured in the media are proving otherwise.

“Increasingly we’re seeing normal behavior in public schools leading to police officers. What other resources are they being given besides arrest?” she said.

"The likelihood of children being arrested at school than they were a generation ago has rapidly increased. These arrests are predominantly for non-violent offenses such as 'disruptive conduct' or 'disturbance of the peace,'" Pavlov said. "Increasing numbers of school districts employ designated 'school resource officers,' or police officers to patrol middle and high school hallways. With often limited experience working with youth, these officers approach youth circumstances and offending through the lens of an adult world, rather than a child’s world at school."

Straight Ahead

One organization working to turn this problem around is Straight Up Café, a restaurant and community center operated by Straight Ahead Ministries, located on Main Street in Worcester. The group specializes in aftercare and youth care, and serves as a work-placement program for youth. Like Strategies for Youth, their goal is to educate and reduce the amount of recidivism.

“There was a federal study done that looked at the cost in real dollars when one youth drops out of school at 16 and enters a life of crime,” said Scott Larson, president of Straight Ahead Ministries. “It costs between 1.7 – 2.1 million dollars in lost taxes, incarceration… It really becomes a fiscal issue when you think about.”

Larson said that sending a child to Harvard is cheaper, adding that on the larger scale the US has 32 percent of the world’s inmates.

“A lot of states – Texas for example – has to release adults to balance their budget each year,” he said. “There are a lot of fiscal reasons behind it. While it’s always hard to get investment in these kinds of things, when you look long term, it’s expensive not to. But unfortunately, it’s often easier to raise money for a jail than these programs.”

Larson said that he agrees that police are an integral part of the equation, and said that Worcester’s Safe and Secure Initiative with the state has been a step in the right direction in making sure they are a key partner.

“That’s one of the good things that’s come out of these funding cuts everywhere,” he said. “It forces agencies to work together. That’s really helped.”

Alternatives to Arrest

The report highlights three key points that all police recruits should be taught in order to combat this issue: understand how developmental capacities of children and teenagers differ from those of adults with different approaches; communication and behavioral skills that are most effective for working with youth to reduce violence; and to recognize triggers and key indicators of trauma, exposure to violence, and other mental health issues.

“Better outcomes can be talking to them, and developing relationships where child is held accountable. Police need to understand that adult approaches to kids often backfire, and that’s the behavior you don’t want,” Thurau said.

She said that police need to understand how to better deal with youth and use fair behavior. She gave an example of a child that may be acting out with no place to go after school, and no guardian supervision.

“Every police officer in Massachusetts should have strong community relationships with organizations to get them into basketball programs, art programs... That’s what we want to do with most of our kids.”

Unfair Treatment

Thurau said that because different locations around the state have different funding for their local academies, poorer areas are often the places that feel the worst effects of this lack of training.

“That makes it super unfair because then children are being treated differently based on where they live,” she said, citing the example of Cambridge, where Strategies for Youth is located. “Thanks to all the tech. companies, they have a fat tax base and can afford those training programs, but not Taunton, not Fall River…. They deserve it just as much.”

She added that on top of this economic disparity, youth are also often discriminated against for other reasons.

“We want to make sure that officers have alternatives to arrest because a lot of youth behavior is normalized,” Thurau said. “We know that kids behaving the same way are treated differently depending on race, gender, and context in which they live. Police need to be on guard about that.”

Pavlov agreed, saying, " Minority students are the populations largely impacted by this. Sanctions intended for adults penalize severe regulations on juveniles without taking into account individual and family nuances."

David Russo

Worcester will recall the case of David Russo, a then 14-year-old resident of the Hammond Heights neighborhood who was unnecessarily questioned for suspicious behavior after a series of break-ins and was eventually arrested after an incident with police. Russo’s story came shortly after that of Trayvon Martin.

“Over the past decade, police have become a ubiquitous presence in the lives of many youths, particularly those living in disadvantaged communities,” the study reads. “They are now routinely deployed in public schools. As social and mental health services have been scaled back, police are frequently the first responders in domestic disputes involving juveniles.”

Russo, who suffers from a brain injury sustained at birth and multiple learning disabilities, was questioned whether he belonged in the neighborhood and was told by police to carry an I.D. His mother, Claudia Russo, discussed her son’s response to police action:

“(Police officers) realized they had made a mistake about five minutes after they arrested him. At that point they should have stopped everything,” said Claudia in an article with GoLocal during the time of the incident. “Unfortunately they acted like police officers – like they don’t make mistakes. They should be able to sit there and think about a situation, in the future. When I went to the station, nothing. I called the chief, nothing. There was no response whatsoever.”

The incident sparked a protest against racial profiling and accountability.

"Most juveniles in this case have a range of special needs and circumstances from developmental and learning disabilities to at-risk backgrounds involving abuse, neglect, or poverty," Pavlov said. "Many of these children would benefit from support services such as counseling, access to community resources and interventions if provided in a timely capacity. Unfortunately, through law enforcement misapplied tactics of adults with youth are usually just the initial steps in this process beginning with the criminalization of minor transgressions often times of school discipline policies."


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