Anyone who has dealt with a child at this stage knows how difficult it can be under the best circumstances. Now try handling situations involving one or more teenagers where they are questioning and challenging authority. Whether an officer is responding to a call where teenagers are part of the witnesses or addressing concerns of teenagers gathering together and becoming unruly, how an officer communicates with these children can change the situation for the better. Teenagers are trying to identify themselves as unique individuals. They speak in ways that seem aggressive and confrontational to adults. The first thing officers should keep in mind is to not take what a teenager says and more importantly how a teenager says something personally. Teenagers often draw officers into their struggles with authority and are also susceptible to humiliation. They want to save face, especially with their peers, even to the extreme and to their detriment. Often an officer is able to diffuse a situation just by separating teenagers from each other. Isolate those that seem to be the biggest trouble makers. Officers should set clear boundaries and limits and use the correct amount of justifiable force for the situation. Teenagers need adults to be adults even though it seems that is the last thing they want. With children, it’s about what they need not what they want. Finally, officers can treat teenagers as individual, semi-independent people instead of stereo-typing them and lumping them all together.
Children do not come with an owner’s manual. This is true for parents as well as for police who are tasked with handling other people’s children. In many situations, officers handle children from one’s who cannot even talk to one’s who won’t stop. Every interaction has the potential to remove some of the negative of the situation and to increase a child’s understanding of the role police play in society. By understanding where a child is developmentally and communicating with them appropriately, an officer can increase cooperation, both now and in the future, and decrease the trauma of a negative interaction. As law enforcement professionals, we have the ability to change a child’s mind about police and by doing so affect interactions for our brothers and sisters in blue in the future.
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Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and CJ from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit www.thewritinghand.net