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Urban Police - Policing Juveniles

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Walker (1999) notes that policing juveniles represents a special problem for police in urban areas for a number of reasons. First, officers are more likely to come into contact with juveniles because they often "hang-out" in groups on the streets that officers patrol. Second, juveniles have less favorable attitudes toward police, although it is unknown if juveniles are more likely to act disrespectfully based on these attitudes. Finally, juveniles "represent a large proportion of the crime problem: 16 percent of all arrests, 29 percent of all Index crime arrests, and 33 percent of all property crime arrests" (p. 114).

Although handling juvenile incidents is believed to be a special problem for police, researchers know very little about actual street interactions between police and juveniles. Research conducted in the 1960s suggests that officers are more likely to initiate contact with juveniles than with adults and that officers have a large amount of discretion during these encounters. This research also shows that taking no official action is the most likely outcome of encounters with juveniles. When arrest is used, it is more likely in situations that are more serious, when victims request arrest, and the juvenile suspect acts in a hostile manner toward police (Piliavin and Briar; Black and Reiss).

Historically, police have taken a patriarchal role toward juveniles. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, police departments housed wayward youths. In the early to mid 1990s, larger police departments became specialized and juvenile units were created. Police organizations recognized the need to treat juveniles as a distinct group, and police working in these units emphasized the goals of prevention, education, and treatment. A survey of large police departments in 1993 revealed that 88 percent of departments had special juvenile units and 76 percent had special gang units (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1995).

As late as the 1980s, police departments were still emphasizing crime prevention and education programs for juveniles. However, in the 1990s, with the exception of the DARE program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), crime prevention and education in many departments were virtually abandoned in favor of aggressive enforcement policies. Most citizens perceive that juvenile crime is on the rise. Police departments and juvenile courts systems across the country have been barraged with "get tough" attitudes emphasized by politicians and the media, and have changed their policies as a result. Yet, in his examination of juvenile crime rates, Thomas Bernard notes that with the exception of homicide, juvenile crime has actually declined "by about one-third over the last twenty years" (p. 337).

Relative to homicide, Bernard notes that the number of juvenile arrests between 1984 and 1993 nearly tripled. While the rate declined by 31 percent from 1993 to 1996, the rate in 1996 was still twice as high as it was in 1984. The increase in homicide rates is often attributed to changes in drug markets and the organization of juvenile gangs. Gangs are represented in over one hundred cities across the United States. Juvenile street gangs in Los Angeles and Detroit are believed to control about 60 percent of the crack cocaine drug trade in those areas (Gaines et al.). Estimates of juvenile gang membership are as high as 150,000 in Los Angeles alone.

Gaines and his colleagues describe four misconceptions related to youth gangs, the drug trade, and law enforcement. First, they note that although law enforcement officials portray gangs as highly organized and structured, they are in reality loosely defined and have high turnover. Second, they note that their violence is based mostly on disputes over turf and respect, rather than the drug trade itself. Third, police often incorrectly label youths as gang members (particularly minorities). And finally, they note that youth gangs are street-level retailers that do not control the drug supply. Due to these misconceptions, Gaines and his colleagues argue that unnecessary panic and media attention guide policymaking regarding juvenile gangs.

Traditional law enforcement responses to gang-related problems involved prevention. Police gang units tried to prevent intra-gang violence by collecting information and interceding when possible. These strategies are largely ineffective. Alternative strategies involve aggressive law enforcement, including enforcement of antigang legislation. However, some of this legislation has been struck down by the courts as unconstitutional. For example, in 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court in City of Chicago v. Morales, 119 S. Ct. 1849 (1999) struck down Chicago's antiloitering law aimed at gang members, which initiated 42,000 arrests in its three years of enforcement (Hornblower). Furthermore, the aggressive tactics of antigang police units have come under intense scrutiny. Officers in the infamous CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) unit of the Los Angeles Police Department have been accused of falsifying and planting evidence on suspects, perjury, and extreme abuses of force. In what is being described as the largest police misconduct scandal in recent history, as of August 2000, ninety-eight criminal cases have been reversed, five officers are facing felony criminal charges, and twenty-five officers have been suspended, fired, or resigned (Feldman).

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