Is It Trauma? Reimagining Justice for Youth

– Executive Summary

In urban communities police often deploy aggressive strategies to combat violent crimes, which often led to low-level arrest of Black youth.[1] Strategies such as Broken Windows Policing have led to Black youth being twice as likely to be arrested than white youth.[2] In 2019, Black youth accounted for 14 percent of the juvenile population in the United States.[3] However, in that same year they accounted for 34% of all juvenile arrests.[4] If law enforcement is to improve its handling of juveniles, leaders must make investments to change the culture of how police relate to Black youth through training, policies, and practices.

Police contacts have been a hazard for Black youth who already deal with the impacts of daily street violence, domestic violence, family deaths, and substance abuse.[5] The idea that they must also contend with race and geographical issues when dealing with police interactions is essential to understanding the lapses in current policing tactics.[6] The issues of over-policing Black youth extends beyond community-based interactions, as they represented 31 percent of school arrests and criminal referrals in the 2015-2016 school year.[7] Recognizing the need for change, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) held a summit to brainstorm new approaches to juvenile justice from a policing standpoint.[8]

While all youth go through everyday stressors, some children experience events and stressors that have permanently affected their ability to control impulsive behaviors and navigate societal norms.[9] In Black urban communities, youth learn to navigate cyclical and chaotic environmental conditions including rampant street violence, domestic violence, substance abuse, food insecurity, homelessness, broken homes, poverty, physical abuse, subpar educational systems, and a persistently high police presence.[10] There is growing evidence that repeated exposure to traumatic stressors and events during childhood could have long-lasting effects on the growth and development of children.[11] Ensuring police officers have a fundamental understanding of youth trauma and its effects can lead to a new evolution of policing in Black, under-resourced communities.[12]

In this thesis, the introduction is followed by three main chapters and a conclusion. The chapters contain historical background on policing in communities and schools, as well as a guide to understanding the phenomenon of trauma and its impacts on youth behaviors. Personal stories resonate with the reader, helping them understand the nuances of statistical data and its implications on an individual’s life.[13] The narrative chapter follows a young Black girl who is dealing with the effects of traumatic stressors that include the loss of her father, substance abuse suffered by her mother, and the over-policing of Black youth in an urban environment. The historical background allows context to be added to the narrative for an in-depth understanding of the complexities involving the juvenile justice system and how it impacts traumatized Black youth.

The complexities of Black youth trauma and policing in urban communities presents no uncomplicated solutions. This research has produced several recommendations that can be essential in changing how police view their role when interacting with Black youth and rebuilding trust within vulnerable communities. The first recommendation is for officers to receive specialized training on trauma-informed care and the symptoms associated with traumatic stressors. A lack of awareness and understanding about the behaviors a youth exhibits can lead to an overly assertive response which often only escalates a situation and does not diffuse it. Educating officers to identify specific behaviors, such as a youth that cannot calm down after an altercation or fight, flight, and freeze identifiers of youth suffering from the effects of trauma, can be an essential tool in decreasing the number of Black youth arrests.[14]

The next recommendation would be to create pre-arrest diversion programs for low-level crimes to be utilized in lieu of formal arrests. Low-level crimes are such non-violent acts as vandalism, truancy, fare evasion, possession of marijuana, and curfew violations.[15] Pre-arrest diversion programs would allow low-level offenders, the majority of juvenile arrests, to go through alternative processes while reserving formal arrest for the more egregious crimes.[16] A vital portion of such programs would be the collaboration between multiple organizations, which could work together to provide resources and services to the youth in lieu of arrest. For instance, key stakeholders like police, clinicians, and social service workers would have regular meetings. The impact that such programs would have on the lives of youth, particularly Black youth, would be invaluable in contending with the ill effects of poverty, violence, hereditary trauma, and a lack of resources.[17] The recommendations described in this thesis would allow the juvenile justice system, particularly police, to rebuild trust within Black urban communities, as well as become part of the solution as opposed to perpetuators of the problem.


[1] New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Civil Rights Implications of “Broken Windows” Policing in NYC and General NYPD Accountability to the Public (New York: U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 2018), https://www.usccr.gov/.

[2] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

[3] “Child Population by Race,” Kids Count Data Center, 2019, https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/103-child-population-b-race.

[4] Office of Juvenile Justice and Deliquency Prevention, “Arrests by Offense, Age, and Gender,” Statistical Briefing Book, 2019, https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/ucr.asp?table_in=1&selYrs=2019&rdoGroups=1&rdoData=c.

[5] Henderson, “In Their Own Words,” 141.

[6] Ana Lilia Campos-Manzo et al., “Unjustified: Youth of Color Navigating Police Presence Across Sociospatial Environments,” Race and Justice 10, no. 3 (2020): 297–319, https://doi.org/10.1177/2153368717741346.

[7] Department of Education, “2015-2016 Civil Rights Data Collection: School Climate and Safety,” U.S. Department of Education, 2018, https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/crdc-2015-16.html.

[8] Anna Bahney et al., Law Enforcement’s Leadership Role in Juvenile Justice Reform Actionable Recommendations for Practice & Policy (Chicago: MacArthur Foundation, 2013), 3, https://www.theiacp.org/resources/iacp-national-summit-on-law-enforcement-leadership-in-juvenile-justice.

[9] Dudley, Jr., New Perspectives in Policing: Childhood Trauma and Its Effects, 3.

[10] Charisa Smith, “Nothing about Us without Us! The Failure of the Modern Juvenile Justice System and a Call for Community-Based Justice,” Journal of Applied Research on Children: Informing Policy for Children at Risk 4, no. 1 (2013): 2, https://digitalcommons.library.tmc.edu/childrenatrisk/vol4/iss1/11/.

[11] Dudley, Jr., New Perspectives in Policing: Childhood Trauma and Its Effects.

[12] Dudley, Jr.

[13] Becky McCall et al., “Storytelling as a Research Tool Used to Explore Insights and as an Intervention in Public Health: A Systematic Narrative Review,” International Journal of Public Health 66 (November 2, 2021): 1604262, https://doi.org/10.3389/ijph.2021.1604262.

[14] Yale School of Medicine, “The Child Development-Community Policing Program,” July 2022, https://medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/services/community-and-schools-programs/yctsr/community-policing/.

[15] New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Civil Rights Implications of “Broken Windows” Policing in NYC and General NYPD Accountability to the Public.

[16] Jill Farrell, Aaron Betsinger, and Paige Hammond, Best Practices in Youth Diversion (Baltimore, Maryland: University of Maryland School of Social Work, 2018), https://theinstitute.umaryland.edu/.

[17] Farrell, Betsinger, and Hammond.

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