The rise in proactive policing has increased the frequency of police-initiated non-voluntary public contacts such as stop and frisk. The style of such contact often involves communicating suspicion and use of coercion and as a result it undermines police legitimacy and police-community relations (Tyler, Jackson, & Mentovich, 2015). Punitive disciplinary actions undermine the development of skills necessary for participation in democratic society (Kupchik & Catlaw, 2015). Our study assessed how youth experience these encounters within the current climate of Black Lives Matter activism. Using psychological empowerment as a lens, we posit that youth who are cognitively empowered should be able to articulate a strategy for change; youth who relationally empowered would propose collective action as a remedy; and youth who are emotionally empowered would express a desire for change.
We conducted one-on-one semi-structured interviews with 90 youth (Mage = 15, range = 13-19) from five recreation centers in the urban center of a mid-sized city in the Northeastern U.S., where the violent crime rate is 4 times the national average, the high school graduation rate is 43%, and 35% of families fall below the federal poverty line. The sample was 60% male and predominantly Black (89% Black, 8% Latinx, 3% Other or Unreported). Interview questions pertained to youth’s experiences with and views of their police-community relations and community involvement. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically using primarily inductive approaches in DeDoose. Coding for empowerment was primarily deductive, using empowerment theory as a guide; yet coders remained open to additional themes.
Youth frequently cited feeling fear and mistrust of police, as captured by one youth who felt afraid his dad would die during an encounter with the police, and other youth who noted that the police do not always help the community and sometimes exert power and display racism. In this context, some youth expressed emotional empowerment in articulating that change in police relations is needed and that they and others could fight for justice, whereas others felt that the problem was too big or no one would listen. Some youth raised the importance of collectively speaking out against police brutality. Others possessed cognitive empowerment in pointing to federal and local policies to increase police accountability.
Conclusions and Implications
Consistent with the literature on policing, our findings suggest that police interactions that communicate suspicion erodes public trust and illicit negative emotions. Interactions with police often led to youth to engage in self-protective behaviors. Nonetheless, instances of emotional, cognitive, and relational empowerment highlight that these youth recognize inequality in national and local examples of police contact with Black communities, and to varying degrees are voicing their concerns and thinking about strategies to address this social problem. Understanding the ways that youth interpret police contact and the feelings associated with those contacts can guide social work practice with youth, advocacy agencies, and other organizations.