Police are the agent of state with the responsibility for keeping communities safe. Increasingly, however, studies show that the presence of police can have negative implications for individuals in domains other than crime control, such as physical health, mental health, and education. In this study, we build on this existing research by focusing on the implications of both direct and vicarious police contact for adolescent wellbeing overall. Importantly, we not only assess whether police contact is harmful, but we also move beyond much of the prior literature by examining whether engagement in extracurricular activities (which have been found to beneficial for adolescents in general) can help mitigate the harm that police contact may have on the well-being of adolescents.
This study used data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study and multivariate OLS regression models to determine whether adolescent participation in extracurricular activities (e.g., engaging in sports, group activities, scouts and/or hobby clubs, school activities, attending religious services, and spending time volunteering) mitigated the harm of police contact on well-being. The Fragile Families dataset is ideal for our analysis because it contains a) a large number of adolescents that experienced police contact; b) measures that capture well-being and extracurricular activities; and c) a diverse array of variables at the individual, family, and community level that allow us to capture potential confounders. After assessing the initial relationship between police contact and well-being, we conducted analyses separately across levels of police contact (i.e., no contact, direct contact, and vicarious only) to determine whether engagement in extracurricular activities had a positive impact on youth well-being, regardless of the extent to which youth experienced police contact.
The findings suggest that experiencing direct police contact or only vicarious police contact is associated with reductions in well-being of 0.30 and 0.16 standard deviations, respectively (compared to those who have not experienced police contact). Although police contact is associated with lower levels of well-being, among those who experience direct police contact and vicarious police contact only, a standard deviation increase in extracurricular engagement is associated with a 0.16 and 0.15 standard deviation increase in well-being, respectively. Extracurricular engagement is also significantly associated with well-being among those not exposed to police contact and differences in extracurricular engagement’s impact are not significantly different across levels of police contact.
Conclusion and Implications
The findings of this study align with previous research which postulates that adolescent engagement in extracurricular activities produces a positive impact on their overall well-being and that police contact is detrimental. Importantly, our findings suggest that regardless of how much exposure young people have with the police, participating in extracurricular activities leads to a positive impact on their overall well-being. These findings suggest that programs that integrate diverse extracurricular activities into their offerings may help mitigate the negative implications of exposure to police for well-being.