Boston Police need policies for dealing with children

Currently, even basic protections are not in place

After this commentary piece was submitted, the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission issued guidance on how police forces in Massachusetts should deal with minor children. To read the guidance, click here.

IN MASSACHUSETTS,  children as young as 12 years old can be arrested and prosecuted. So, wouldn’t you like to know the Boston Police Department’s policy on how and when to Mirandize a child? Or its policy on use of force against young people? Or what measures it has put in place to minimize trauma experienced by children present when police are executing search warrants or arresting a parent?

Yes, so would we.

Unfortunately, such policies do not exist. Despite two Supreme Court decisions that clearly state “children are different,” and should be treated accordingly by the juvenile/criminal justice system, available BPD juvenile arrest policies have not been updated since 1995, years before these legal developments. Currently, the department does not have even basic protections recognizing the unique legal status of youth, despite the International Association of Chiefs of Police endorsement of such policies.

The failure of BPD to update these policies is both baffling and galling.  It is baffling because of the growing volume of knowledge we now have about the profound and long-term impact that police interactions have on youth. Negative police encounters, even when they are witnessed second-hand, leave scars on teens that don’t easily or quickly heal. These experiences affect their emotional state, mental health, and academic performance; they increase youth’s distrust of authority, and often riddle future interactions with law enforcement with anxiety and fear—escalating encounters and increasing the risk of either violence, arrest, or both.

BPD’s failure to update or expand policies protecting children is particularly galling, given recent developments.  The department has been wracked by a series of scandals that continue to erode the public’s trust; two involving child abuse committed by long-time police officers. We have seen credible allegations that former Patrolman Union President Patrick Rose sexually assaulted several children. Higher ups not only knew about this, but allowed him to remain on the force for decades and even continue to investigate crimes against children. More recently, a video depicting Sergeant Brian Dunford pinning, striking, taunting, and threatening a 10-year-old child was released to the public.

Moreover, new concerns about BPD leadership’s abuses of power and revelations of theft amongst the ranks will continue to weaken youth’s view of police. Children are profoundly concerned with concepts of fairness. The hypocrisy of police officers who arrest them for shoplifting a snack, but steal thousands of dollars in overtime fraud, will not be lost on them.

Sadly, these BPD officers have company among their colleagues across the state. Last summer, the most pro-police US Department of Justice in history called out Springfield police for, among other transgressions, beating a youth “so severely that he received a fractured nose, two black eyes, and numerous head contusions and abrasions.” The Justice Department found these violations to be “directly attributable to systemic deficiencies in policies, accountability systems, and training.”

These stories undermine assumptions that police officers, so frequently in positions of power and control over vulnerable youth, intuitively understand how to treat and effectively engage children, or will use “common sense” during these interactions.  Too many do not.

We are treading in dangerous waters, not only for our children, but for the trust and legitimacy necessary for any police force to successfully and safely operate. BPD could acknowledge its need to step up by adopting and holding officers accountable to clear and enforceable policies and standards that reflect a developmentally-appropriate, trauma-informed, and racially equitable approach to youth encounters. For starters, these should ban pointing guns at children, mandate the presence of counsel before custodial interrogations, and acknowledge and prioritize the safety of children when homes are the site of raids, searches, or arrests.

Meet the Author

Lisa Thurau

Executive director, Strategies for Youth
Meet the Author

Kristen Wheeler

Staff attorney, Strategies for Youth
Fortunately, in Boston, we have a vehicle already in place for doing exactly that. The Boston Police Reform Task Force was convened expressly for the purpose of reviewing BPD policies and making recommendations for revisions to those policies. It has already recognized “youth,” along with several other categories, as warranting special attention to prevent potential discrimination.

But BPD needs to go further. The task force has called its recommendations “a floor, rather than a ceiling,” focusing on racial equity.  Now is the time for BPD to work with stakeholders to adopt policies that add a developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed and racially equitable approach to the inevitable interactions and disputes that will occur between police and youth. Our state’s children and teenagers deserve—and are increasingly taking to the streets to demand—nothing less.

Lisa Thurau is the executive director and Kristen Wheeler is the staff attorney at Strategies for Youth of Boston.