In response to the increased prominence of “proactive policing” and the growing presence of police in schools, scholarship has begun to explore the impact that police contact has on youth. This research has generally focused on serious police contact (arrest, court involvement, and incarceration) and has found that police contact is associated with a wide range of negative outcomes. A smaller subset of scholarship has started to examine the impact of direct contact without arrest and vicarious contact (e.g. witnessing a stop) finding that experiencing this type of contact is associated with worse educational and mental health outcomes. Research has yet to examine whether direct and vicarious police contact are associated with future orientation, an important gap because attitudes towards the future are associated with important long term outcomes. In this paper we begin to fill this gap by examining the association between direct and vicarious police contact and youth’s optimism about the future, both in general and with respect to graduating college.
Using data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study and multivariate logistic regression, we examine whether police contact that results in arrest, police contact that does not result in arrest, and vicarious police contact are associated with whether youth are very optimistic about their future in general, as well as whether they are very optimistic about graduating college. We also conduct simulations using predict probabilities to put the magnitude of the associations in context. The Fragile Families data are particularly well-suited for this analysis because they sampled youth born in 20 large cities, oversampled disadvantaged families (families that are more likely to have had negative experiences with police), and contain a wide array of family, child, school, and neighborhood characteristics that we can control for to better protect against spurious associations.
Our multivariate analyses lead to several key findings. First, youth who have been arrested are significantly less optimistic about college graduation but not about the future in general. Second, youth who have been stopped but not arrested are less optimistic about the future (both generally and with respect to college graduation), as are youth who have experienced vicarious contact. These associations are substantively large: simulations suggest that a teen who has been stopped but not arrested by police and has also experienced vicarious contact is 14 percentage points less likely to be very optimistic about the future generally and 16 percentage points less likely to be very optimistic about college graduation than youth who have never experienced police contact.
Our study is consistent with prior work that suggests that relying on aggressive policing has negative consequences in domains other than crime control. It is particularly noteworthy that stops that do not result in arrest and vicarious police contact are negatively associated with optimism about the future because these types of police contact are especially common. Therefore, as policymakers determine the role of policing in their communities, they should consider the growing evidence that police contact has negative consequences for youth.