Massachusetts is underfunding police training, especially in the areas of juvenile justice and in dealing with sexual assault, according to a new report to be released later today, obtained by WGBH News.
Last year, police arrested more than 2 million juveniles nationwide. But the study, compiled by Strategies for Youth, a Cambridge based legal research training organization, finds that most states, including Massachusetts, are doing little to prepare new officers to effectively communicate with teens.
“We think this puts both police officers and youth at a disadvantage,” said attorney Lisa Thurau, the study’s co-author and president of Strategies for Youth.
The report concludes that five states, including New Hampshire, require zero hours of police training in dealing with youth. Rhode Island provides the bare minimum. And in the shadow of violence in Columbine, and most recently in Newtown, only nine states — notably Connecticut — provide police officers any training on adolescent mental health issues.
As for Massachusetts, it’s the third least funded police training in the country.
“That’s shocking,” Thurau said. “Police are less well trained in Massachusetts than firemen are.”
The Strategies for Youth study also finds that overall police training in Massachusetts ignores new scientific research on adolescent brain development that might help explain juvenile behavior.
“We think much more needs to be done to communicate all the scientific advances and understanding we have of teenagers, and reduce the number of kids in the justice system who really don’t need to be there,” Thurau said.
Thurau said some law enforcement leaders in Massachusetts acknowledge that there is a serious deficit in training. But what are they doing about it?
“The Municipal Police Training Committee is well aware of juvenile justice concerns and is currently in the process of rewriting our curriculum,” said Massachusetts police training executive, Dan Zivkovich.
The training curriculum is being revised, in fact, to address key findings of the study. Thurau said such training is critical to reducing confrontations between police and youth; especially Latino and Black teenagers.
“We saw in our study that very few academies are embracing the requirement that officers address disproportionate minority contact, and that is a federal requirement that requires every state to look at disproportionate youth of color,” Thurau said. “And we know that youth of color are arrested in greater numbers. They’re detained and they are incarcerated in greater numbers.”
The vast majority of juvenile arrests are for low-level, nonviolent offenses. MBTA Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan said a lot of arrests could be avoided with the proper training. In the 1980s and ‘90s there were several well-publicized incidents between minority youth and police on subways and buses that led to confrontations.
“When we first recognized that the youth were acting in this disorderly manner we used to try to arrest our way out of it and we realized that that wasn’t fair, foremost to the youth because we were giving them a record for these minor offenses, but it also caused concern with the community, and that we were being heavy handed on how to deal with this issue,” MacMillan said.
As a result, the MBTA transit police instituted new training, MacMillan said.
“We offer a course, ‘Policing the Teenage Brain,’ and it’s given in our police academy as part of the core curriculum,” MacMillan said. “Another tool in the tool belt, as it were, that they could use so they wouldn’t have to resort to a confrontation and an arrest.”
Strategies for Youth played a role in the development of the curriculum, but most other police departments throughout the state have a long way to go to improve overall training, Thurau said.
“Right now Massachusetts can’t even be sure that all officers are trained to conduct very basic investigations, including sexual violence investigations, because there’s not enough money” she said. “It’s a matter of both money and leadership, and Massachusetts definitely has the leadership.”
And Thurau argues that Massachusetts should invest in new police training that emphasizes communication with youth over arrests, because in the long run it helps reduce juvenile detention populations and saves taxpayers money.