Volume 3, Issue 2 • Spring 2014

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

The Prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the Lives of Juvenile Offenders

Effectiveness of Multisystemic Therapy for Minority Youth: Outcomes Over 8 Years in Los Angeles County

Personal and Anticipated Strain Among Youth: A Longitudinal Analysis of Delinquency

Evaluation of a Program Designed to Promote Positive Police and Youth Interactions

Implications of Self-Reported Levels of Hope in Latino and Latina Youth on Probation

Commentary: Do Youth Mentoring Programs Work? A Review of the Empirical Literature

Evaluation of a Program Designed to Promote Positive Police and Youth Interactions

Samantha A. Goodrich and Stephen A. Anderson
University of Connecticut, Storrs

Valerie LaMotte
State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management, Hartford, Connecticut

Samantha A. Goodrich, Center for Applied Research in Human Development, University of Connecticut, Storrs; Stephen A. Anderson, Center for Applied Research in Human Development, University of Connecticut, Storrs; Valerie LaMotte, Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division, State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management.

Samantha Goodrich is now a senior research and evaluation scientist at Lehigh Valley Health Network, Office of Health Systems Research and Innovation.

Correspondence concerning this article should be sent to Samantha A. Goodrich through her e-mail: samantha_a.goodrich@lvhn.org

Keywords: police, juvenile, prevention programs, social factors, law enforcement

Abstract

Persons under the age of 18 comprise a sizable portion of those arrested in the United States each year, amounting to 12.5% of all arrests in 2010 (Puzzanchera & Kang, 2013). Police are critical gatekeepers between youth and the juvenile justice system, yet a great proportion of interactions between police and youth can be categorized as negative. Youth tend to hold more negative attitudes toward police than do adults. Because juvenile arrests increase the likelihood of negative outcomes for youth in later life, understanding the predictors of negative interactions is important. This study evaluated a prevention program designed to create positive interactions between police and youth in a non–law enforcement environment that included fun activities and community service projects. Using a pre-post design, survey data suggested that participation in the program did, in fact, improve police officers’ and youths’ attitudes toward each other. Participants reported enjoying the program and appreciating the opportunity to interact in this informal setting. Implications for delinquency prevention are explored.

Introduction

Persons under the age of 18 comprise a sizable portion of those arrested in the United States each year, amounting to 12.5% of all arrests in 2010 (Puzzanchera & Kang, 2013). Recently, attention has been drawn to the notably high rate of negative interactions that occur between police officers and youth. Not only do these negative interactions influence the likelihood of arrest, but they may also decrease the likelihood that youth would seek help from police in the future (Friedman, Lurigio, Greenleaf, & Albertson, 2004).

Furthermore, because police serve as the first point of contact between youth and the justice system, the initial interaction between a police officer and youth can influence subsequent interactions within the justice system (Liederbach, 2007), making police officers critical gate keepers. This recognition has led to a line of research examining predictive factors of negative interactions between police and youth. The goal is to understand the processes at work during these interactions and, it is hoped, alter negative patterns of interaction.

One approach, from a prevention perspective, is to alter or improve the negative preconceived opinions and attitudes that youth and police hold about each other. Generally, past experiences influence the attitudes and beliefs an individual holds about a group to which he or she does not belong. Cognitions, or the logic one uses to make sense of an experience, affect the way individuals respond to situations (Bugental & Johnston, 2000; Deater-Deckard & Dodge, 1997). According to attribution theory, attributions are the motivations and explanations one applies when interpreting another’s behavior (Bugental, Johnston, New, & Silvester, 1998). Attributions, which are partially based upon past experiences, become unconscious and automatic over time. Individuals rely on attributions in their affective and behavioral response in a given situation (Bugental & Johnston, 2000; Bugental et al., 1998).

The link between past experiences and current attitudes plays an important role in understanding police and youth relations (Brick, Taylor, & Esbensen, 2009). When studying police and youth interactions, it is important to consider the attitudes held and attributions made by both the police and youth because both play equal roles in the interaction process and its outcome (Friedman et al., 2004; Jackson, 2002). Although youth and police attitudes and interactions have been the focus of research for many years, little research has focused on prevention programs designed to improve the attitudes of police and youth toward one another. This article presents an evaluation of an initiative that provided funds to seven communities in Connecticut to create pilot programs that provided positive interactions between police and youth in a non-law enforcement environment.

Youth Attitudes Toward Police

Prior studies indicate that one primary influence on a youth’s attitudes toward police officers is the youth’s own past experiences with police officers (e.g. Bradford, Jackson, & Stanko, 2009). Moreover, the nature of that contact matters. In general, negative past contacts with police lead to negative attitudes toward police (Hurst, 2007). Not surprisingly, some studies have found that youth who have been arrested or in trouble with the law, a clearly negative outcome, tend to have significantly less favorable attitudes toward police than youth experiencing no contacts, positive contacts, or neutral contacts with them (Brick et al., 2009; Jackson, 2002; Leiber, Nalla, & Farnworth, 1998).

However, interactions that end in arrest are only a small portion of the encounters that occur between police and youth. Adolescents may develop negative attitudes from other negative interactions with police that do not end in legal action. Hurst (2007), for example, found that youth who had a negative, non-arrest experience with police, whether such experience was youth-initiated (e.g., asking an officer for information, asking for help in non-criminal matters) or police-initiated (e.g., being stopped while standing on the street or when driving or riding in a car), reported less positive attitudes toward the police than youth who had positive contacts. Similarly, Friedman et al. (2004) found that youth who felt disrespected when stopped by police reported less trust and respect for police than did other youth. In contrast, Bradford and colleagues (2009) found that youths’ positive encounters with police were related to feelings of confidence in police and positive perceptions of police engagement in the community. Bradford and colleagues' findings suggest that positive interactions can influence opinions in a positive direction as well.

Community context also plays a role in shaping attitudes toward the police. Some studies have found that youth who live in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty and crime tend to hold more negative attitudes toward police (Hurst, 2007; Slocum, Taylor, Brick, & Esbensen, 2010). Leiber and colleagues (1998) found that residing in a “bad” neighborhood significantly decreased feelings of respect for the police in particular. Bradford et al. (2009) found that it is more than just living in a bad area. They found that negative opinions about the local area, including perceptions of disorder and a lack of community cohesion, were significantly associated with less favorable ratings of police.

The implications of these previous studies are two-fold. One is that a critical point of intervention with youth is to make the types of experience they have with police more positive. The other is that providing youth with opportunities to connect with their community in positive ways can further enhance their favorable opinions of both the community and the police. Unfavorable preconceived opinions about police are problematic because they can result in youth being less cooperative with, or less supportive toward, police during future interactions (Brunson & Weitzer, 2011; Friedman et al., 2004). Alternatively, having positive past experiences may enhance or promote positive, future police interactions (Bradford et al., 2009).

Police Attitudes Toward Youth

Although police are equally accountable for the interactions with youth, significantly less research has been conducted on the formation of opinions and attitudes of police officers toward youth. As noted earlier, police are the first and sometimes only point of contact youth may have with the juvenile justice system. Following attribution theory, police officers’ preconceived opinions of youth should also impact police–youth interactions (Jackson, 2002). The little research examining police attitudes that is available has looked at whether police treat all youth equally and whether their treatment of youth is similar to their treatment of adults.

The literature points to one clear factor that can lead to negative attitudes and behaviors by police toward youth, and that is the demeanor of the youth during the police–youth interaction. Liederbach (2007) observed police and youth interactions in law enforcement contexts and found that officers were more lenient when the youth was deferential to the officer; interactions were more likely to end in arrest when the youth was passive-aggressive or hostile. However, this study did not examine the role of preconceived attitudes of police prior to the interaction.

Brown, Novak, and Frank (2009) compared rates of arrest and level of authority used in police interactions with both adults and youth and found that a disrespectful demeanor from a juvenile during an encounter did not increase the likelihood of arrest when compared to adults, but it did increase the level of authority used by the police toward the juvenile during the encounter. Interestingly, Brown et al. (2009) also found that when police–youth encounters occurred in more distressed communities, youth were more likely to be arrested. Community contexts may influence police as they have been shown to influence youth.

Another influence on police attitudes toward youth that has been studied is police knowledge about adolescent development and typical youth behavior. The hypothesis is that police officers who lack a strong understanding of adolescent mental and emotional development are more likely to attribute youth behaviors to negative intentions and motivations than to other factors. LaMotte et al. (2010) found that police who participated in a training program to enhance their knowledge of adolescent development and typical youth behavior held more favorable attitudes toward youth following the training. This is one of the few studies that showed a clear connection between knowledge of adolescent development and changes in police attitudes toward youth.

In summary, the minimal literature available suggests that police are influenced by personal and contextual characteristics when interacting with youth. Police officers’ understanding of youth development and behavior may be improved through greater exposure to youth in non–law enforcement situations.

Implications for Prevention and Intervention

Most research to date has focused on naturally occurring law enforcement encounters between police and youth. As a result we know a good deal about these interactions and how they proceed. However, we know significantly less about effective models of intervening to alter negative preconceived notions. If negative contacts lead to negative attitudes which, in turn, result in negative interactions, then it is important, from a prevention perspective, to break this cycle to create more positive outcomes. A reasonable, testable extension of the existing police and youth literature is that positive police–youth experiences can foster positive attitudes (i.e., alter negative attributions) and lead to positive changes in juveniles’ demeanor toward police and police responses toward youth. By providing opportunities for positive interactions between police and youth outside of the usual law enforcement setting, prevention programs may alter participants’ attitudes toward each other.

Scaglion and Condon (1980) noted that programs are more likely to be effective if they include personal, positive interactions between police and the public and if they promote change at the individual, rather than at the community, level. In other words, effective programs require one-on-one, personal interactions between police and youth. More recently, Bradford and colleagues’ (2009) research showed that certain aspects of the public’s opinions of police officers, such as their level of fairness and community engagement, may be amenable to change through in-person contact.

School Resource Officers (SROs) serve as points of contact between youth and police and typically engage in both law enforcement activities and teaching, in addition to mentoring, within the school environment. Findings of the effectiveness of SRO programs have been mixed, with some studies finding moderately positive attitude changes (Finn & McDevitt, 2005) and others reporting little to no impact (e.g., Hopkins, Hewstone, & Hantzi, 1992). It is, therefore, important to consider programs outside of the structured school setting.

Few studies have implemented and evaluated extracurricular programs designed to improve police and youth attitudes using strategies outside of traditional law enforcement and teaching environments. In one study, Rabois and Haaga (2002) created a competitive environment for police and youth to interact on the same basketball teams and found that police officers’ attitudes toward the youth improved after participating on these teams. These results suggest that informal contacts between police and youth can offer a valuable opportunity for police to build positive attitudes toward youth. Improvements in youth attitudes were not significant, however, as the youth participants began the program with positive attitudes toward police. Hinds (2009) found positive youth outcomes. Specifically, youth cooperation and support for police was enhanced by informal contact between young people and police during shared community projects. Further research is needed to identify successful interventions designed to create positive opportunities for police and youth interactions. The current study adds to this evidence base by evaluating a program designed to create informal police and youth interactions.

Overall, the goal of this study was to measure changes in attitudes of participants in a positive Police and Youth Interaction Program. The research question of interest was whether participating in a program that provides a non–law enforcement environment for police and youth to positively interact improves the attitudes of youth and police toward each other. Given the research on the role of community context, and the fact that the convenience sample of programs included a community service project (see more details below), the influence on participants’ feelings toward the community were also examined. More specifically, this study asked:

  1. Did participation in these positive Police and Youth Interaction Programs improve youths’ general attitudes toward police as well as their feelings about their community? Were there differences in the amount of change over time in these two constructs in terms of gender, age, or past experience with police officers?
  2. Did participation in these positive Police and Youth Interaction Programs improve police officers’ general attitudes toward youth as well as their perceived impact on youth through their police role? Are there differences in the amount of change over time in these two areas depending on the number of years as a police officer or past experience with youth?
  3. Were police and youth participants satisfied with the program and did they enjoy this type of intervention?

Methods

The State of Connecticut Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee funded Police and Youth Interaction Programs in seven communities during the 2011–2012 school year. This funding opportunity was available to the entire state of Connecticut, and those that could apply were local government and community agencies such as the police department or youth services bureaus. Programs were designed to promote positive youth development by engaging police and youth in meaningful and enjoyable community activities. The programs were also designed to increase the numbers of police officers who were comfortable working and interacting with youth.

Sample

Participants included 187 youth and 49 police officers. Of this sample, 119 youth and 35 police officers completed surveys at baseline and program completion. Demographic data were collected on the pre-test surveys but only the sample characteristics of those who completed surveys at both time points are reported here. It is important to note that those who did not complete post-tests did not necessarily drop out of the program. For example, some youth and police officers did not attend the final session where surveys were completed; therefore, their data were not obtained.

For the youth, comparisons between those who completed only the pre-test and those who completed both surveys suggested that the two groups did not differ with regard to gender, age, academic grades, or previous program experience. African American and White youth were more likely than Latino youth to complete both the pre- and post-test surveys (χ2(1) = 12.26, p < .001; χ2(1) = 11.99 p = .001). Also, youth who were eligible for free and reduced lunch, an indicator of lower socioeconomic status, were less likely to complete surveys at both time points compared to those who were not eligible (χ2(1) = 15.60, p <.001). However, only about 23% of the total sample was eligible for free and reduced lunch. The mean age of the youth participants was 14.98 (SD = 1.97), ranging from 11 years old to over 19 years old. Figure 1 provides a complete breakdown of the ages of youth participants; Table 1 provides the demographic information about the youth participants.

Figure 1. Age of youth participants at baseline (N = 119).

Figure showing Age of youth participants at baseline (N = 119)

Table 1. Demographic Characteristics of Youth Participants (N = 119)

Demographic Groups N %

Gender

Male

50

42

 

Female

69

58

Ethnicity

Caucasian

89

75

 

African American

13

11

 

Latino/Hispanic

5

4

 

Other

11

9

Receiving free and reduced lunch

Yes

11

9

 

No

108

91

Academic grades

Mostly A and Bs

110

93

 

Mostly C and Ds

8

7

Previous experience in a police and youth program

Yes

28

24

 

No

91

76

For police participants, there were no significant differences on any of the demographic variables between those who completed both pre- and post-test surveys and those who completed only pre-tests. On average, police officers had been in their role for just over 10 years, with a range of 2 to 26 years. Figure 2 shows the distribution of the number of years participants had served as police officers for this sample. Table 2 provides a summary of the demographic characteristics of the police participants.

Figure 2. Number of years as a police officer (N = 34).

Figure showing Number of years as a police officer (N = 34).

Table 2. Demographic Characteristics of Police Participants (N = 34)

Demographic Groups N %

Gender

Male

27

79

 

Female

7

21

Ethnicity

Caucasian

32

94

 

Latino/Hispanic

2

6

Past experiences with youth

One-day Youth Interaction Training

18

53

 

Past police and youth programs

8

30

 

Any youth program

21

62

 

Coach or mentor

20

61

 

Any one of these experiences

28

82

 

Parent

23

68

Program Components

All funded programs needed to meet a number of requirements, which provided some consistency across programs. Each program had to include youth participants ages 12 to 18, and police officers interacting in non-enforcement roles in activities or events that were enjoyable for both groups, such as a ropes course or bowling. Every program had to include a team-building component, leadership opportunities for youth, and a community service project. In addition, each program had to serve at least some at-risk youth, as defined by the program, and include more than one session. Finally, programs were not allowed to use police-oriented curriculum such as DARE, police academies, or police explorer activities, as these place police in a teaching role.

Besides the required components, programs were allowed to tailor other elements to their specific community. As a result, programs differed on a number of factors, such as size of the program, number and frequency of meeting times, and the types of events and service projects selected. Some examples of the community service projects chosen were Stuff-a-Bus (a charity event in which donations were made by community members to fill a bus and be given to those in need), cleaning up the town walking and bike trails, and working with senior citizens. Program length ranged from 2 months to 11 months and the number of times the programs met ranged from 5 to 26 times.

Design

A pre-post survey design was utilized in this study. Surveys were created for both participant groups to measure changes in the attitudes and opinions of police and youth toward each other. Surveys were completed before the start of the program, as well as at the end of the program. Program staff administered the surveys. Before the program began, a 1-day orientation was provided during which the evaluation team discussed strategies and tips for administering the surveys with the program staff. At their first session, the staff began by having the police and youth complete their surveys separately. The sites were encouraged to give participants enough room to complete the surveys so they were not influenced by others looking at their answers. Participants were given a study identification number that provided anonymity for participants so they would feel more comfortable answering the survey questions honestly. Program staff then collected the surveys and mailed them to the evaluation team for analysis. Similar procedures were followed on the last session of the program, and participants used the same identification number so their pre- and post-surveys could be matched. The study did not use a comparison group since one was not readily available.

Measures

In addition to the scales described below (see also Table 3 and Appendix A), pre-test surveys asked questions about demographic information and previous experiences interacting with youth or police, respectively. Youth were asked their age, grade, gender, ethnicity, typical grades in school, and whether they received free and reduced lunch. They were also asked if they had participated in a Police and Youth Program before, and whether their past interactions with police were mostly positive or mostly negative (or whether they had no previous interactions). Police were asked to provide their gender, ethnicity, and the number of years they had been an officer. They were then asked about their past experiences; that is, whether they had been an SRO, parent, or a coach/mentor. Finally, they were asked whether they had completed the police training offered in Connecticut focusing on adolescent development and ways to better interact with youth.

Table 3. Overview of Study Measures

Demographic Groups N %  

Youth

 

 

 

 

Attitudes toward police

1 [Strongly Disagree] –
5 [Strongly Agree]

It is possible for police and youth to get along

0.9

0.87

Community involvement

1 [Strongly Disagree] –
5 [Strongly Agree]

have things I can offer to others

0.89

0.87

Program experience

1 [Never True] –
5 [Almost Always True]

I felt I made a contribution

-

0.89

Police

 

 

 

 

Attitudes toward youth

1 [Strongly Disagree] –
5 [Strongly Agree]

Teenagers are motivated

0.76

0.81

Ability to work with youth

1 [Not at all Confident] –
5 [Very Confident]

How confident are you in your ability to start a conversation with youth

0.76

0.81

Perceived impact of police on youth

1 [Strongly Disagree] –
5 [Strongly Agree]

Positive interactions with youth are an important part of community policing efforts

0.8

0.89

The post-tests included the pre-test scales and eight additional open-ended questions about participants’ experiences in the program. Further descriptions of the attitude scales are provided below.

Our first research question was does participation in these positive Police and Youth Interaction Programs improve youths’ general attitudes toward police as well as their feelings about their community?

To answer the first research question two scales were used:

Our second research question was: does participation in these positive Police and Youth Interaction Programs improve police officers’ general attitudes toward youth as well as their perceived impact on youth through their police role? This question was answered using the following three scales:

The final research question was whether police and youth participants were satisfied with the program and whether they enjoyed this type of intervention program. In order to answer this question, the following questions were used:

Data Analysis

Changes in attitudes and opinions from pre-test to post-test were analyzed using paired sample t-tests. One-way ANOVAs, repeated measures ANOVA, and independent sample t-tests were also used to test differences in the amount of change seen across subgroups of the sample, as well as differences in baseline opinions and attitudes. The qualitative data from the open-ended questions on the post-test survey regarding satisfaction with the program were transcribed into a database. Each participant’s response to a particular question was turned into a list and the responses were grouped according to similarity of answers. The most common or predominant responses are reported here.

Results

Youth Attitudes Toward Police

Before analyzing changes in attitudes, we examined whether youths’ past experiences with police prior to beginning the program influenced their baseline (TI) attitudes toward police. Youth participants were asked to indicate whether they had previous experiences with police by choosing among three possible responses: (a) no, (b) yes, and they were mostly positive, and (c) yes, and they were mostly negative. A one-way ANOVA was conducted to test differences on youths’ scores on the Attitudes Toward Police Scale among the three resulting groups, which showed a significant effect of type of past experiences with police on baseline attitudes toward police (F (3, 181) = 15.18, p < .001). A Tukey’s post-hoc test revealed that those who reported negative past experiences with police (M = 3.22, SD = .53) reported significantly more negative attitudes toward police at the beginning of the program than those with positive past experiences (M = 4.14, SD = .49, p < .001) or no past experiences (M = 4.07, SD = .50, p < .001). There was not a significant difference in attitudes toward police at baseline between those who had reported no past experiences with police and those who reported positive past experiences (p = 0.81). Consistent with past studies, negative past experiences with police were found to negatively affect the attitudes youth held toward law enforcement officers in this study.

Overall, youth participants’ attitudes toward police significantly improved from Time 1 (M = 3.97) to Time 2 (M = 4.28; t(116) = - 6.67, p < .001). Looking at the individual items of the attitudes scale and using a Bonferroni correction of alpha, scores improved significantly on 11 of the 14 items. Of particular interest, at Time 2 youth reported significantly more positive feelings regarding the possibility of police and youth being able to get along (t(117) = -4.04, p < .001), their comfort level when seeing police on the street (t(116) = -5.56, p < .001), and police officers’ level of respect toward teens similar to themselves (t(114) = -3.70, p < .001), compared to Time 1. These items suggest that those who participated in the program experienced interactions that improved their view and expectations of police officers.

Furthermore, the amount of change demonstrated on youths’ attitudes scale scores from Time 1 to Time 2 was significantly different depending on whether or not they had participated in a police and youth program previously. Youth who had no prior experience in a police and youth program (M = 0.39) reported a significantly greater amount of change in their attitudes toward police officers than those who had previously participated in a police and youth program (M = 0.05; t(115) = -3.27, p = .001). Changes in attitudes did not significantly differ across gender or age.

Youth also reported significantly greater community involvement at Time 2 (M = 3.40) than they did when they entered the program (M = 3.30; t(117) = -2.47, p = 0.02). To further examine the relationship between attitudes toward police and community involvement, the scores of these two scales were correlated at Time 1 and again at Time 2. At both time points, youths’ reported attitudes toward police officers was significantly correlated with their level of community involvement (T1: r = .33, p < .001; T2: r = .41, p < .001). The positive relationship between these two factors suggests that as feelings in one area improved, feelings in the other area improved as well.

Police Attitudes Toward Youth

On the police side, the attitudes toward youth approached, but did not reach, significance, with a mean score of 3.43 at Time 1 and a mean score of 3.58 at Time 2 (t(34) = -1.79, p = 0.08). The number of years as a police officer did not predict the amount of change seen in officers’ attitudes toward youth. Furthermore, no significant differences were found on the overall scores of police officer’s sense of self-efficacy in working with youth or officers’ perceived impact on youth scales.

However, police officers’ average score on the scale measuring self-efficacy in working with youth at Time 1 was 4.48 on a 5-point scale, suggesting that police were very confident in their ability to work with youth before participating in this program. Most participating police officers (82%) reported having past experiences interacting with youth through coaching, mentoring, or being an SRO. The same was true of police officers’ perceived impact on youth. Their mean score at Time 1 was 4.43 out of a possible 5, meaning that police who participated in this program already recognized the potential impact they could have on youth before entering the program.

Program Satisfaction

Ninety-eight percent of youth participants rated their overall program experience as excellent or good. The youth overwhelmingly reported that they had fun in the program. A number of participants commented that it allowed them to see the police in a different light, and it gave them a chance to get to know them and learn that they are good people. According to one participant, the highlight of the experience was “learning that police officers were a lot more like normal people than we believe.” Many youth noted that the police were very welcoming, and some youth also liked that they were able to try new things and overcome some of their fears in the program.

Police reported similar sentiments, with all of the police officers rating their overall program experience as excellent or good. They noted that they really enjoyed talking with the youth about life issues while in a non–law enforcement role and commonly reported that the best part of the program was “interacting with the youth” and “seeing the interest of the children in what the police do.” Some police officers relayed anecdotes of seeing the youth around their community and enjoyed being able to say hello and have positive interactions with them. Police also noted satisfaction in seeing the youth change and grow. One officer commented that his or her favorite part was “helping kids reach their goals of completing difficult tasks.”

The community service projects were rated as a good way for the two groups to interact because the projects allowed them to join together over a common goal and to improve the community. One teen reported that his or her favorite part of the program was “being with the police officers and my friends while doing something productive for the community.” Another youth reported that he or she enjoyed “seeing people’s reactions about the events we put together.” Finally, a third participant noted that he or she “wished I knew about the program before senior year. It was a chance to just relieve stress and focus on helping the community.”

Overall, the qualitative data provide initial evidence that the Police and Youth Interaction Programs are successful in creating opportunities for positive relations between police and youth and improving the outlook of each group toward the other. The program provides youth with the opportunity to see police in a positive way and provides police with an opportunity to speak with youth in a context in which they are not in trouble with the law.

Discussion

The data suggest that in a short period of time, Police and Youth Interaction Programs can positively influence police and youth participants. The programs provide police and youth an opportunity to interact in non–law enforcement environments and create opportunities to alter the opinions of those in the opposite group through positive exposure. The program is particularly effective in improving youth participants’ attitudes toward police, especially those who had not previously participated in a police and youth program. Similar to previous literature (Friedman et al., 2004; Hurst, 2007), youth who characterized their previous experience with police as mostly negative reported significantly more negative attitudes at Time 1 than those with no experience or mostly positive experiences.

Youth also felt more connected to the community after completing the program. Past research suggests that negative opinions about one’s neighborhood are related to negative attitudes about police (Bradford et al., 2009; Leiber et al., 1998). This study suggests that the opposite might also be true. At both the beginning and end of the program, youths’ reported attitudes toward police were significantly correlated with their score on the community involvement scale. That is, a positive attitude toward one’s neighborhood was associated with a positive attitude toward the police in this sample. This analysis did not examine the causal relationship between these two factors, and future studies may examine which factor directly influences the other.

Police participants began the program with a high level of confidence in their ability to work with youth and a strong understanding of the impact police could have on youth. One interesting question is whether their perceived ability matches their actual ability to interact with youth. However, the attitudes of police toward youth did improve somewhat (approaching significance) at the completion of the program. The amount of change shown from Time 1 to Time 2 was not influenced by the number of years the police officer had been serving in his or her role.

These findings cannot speak to two elements: (a) whether changes in attitudes and beliefs will lead to changes in behavior in the future and (b) whether the opinions of these participants are generalizable to other police officers or youth with whom they will interact in the future. Answers to these questions would require additional longitudinal data to be collected over time. In addition, this study was a pilot study and evaluation design focused solely on pre- and post-surveys. More intensive evaluation methods, including interviews or focus groups with participants and the inclusion of a comparison group, would improve the conclusions that could be drawn about the effectiveness of these programs.

There was also a large variation among programs with regard to program structure and dosage (frequency and duration). Greater uniformity across programs would allow for further analyses as to which elements of the program were most effective in improving the opinions of the youth and police. Alternatively, a greater number of participants in each program would allow for cross-program analyses to determine whether some programs are more successful than others, as well as comparisons of sub-groups of participants.

The study offers initial evidence for the promise of programs that aim to provide positive interactions between police and youth as a means of limiting future negative interactions between the two groups. Future studies should replicate these findings with a larger sample of participants and among a more diverse sample. In this study, 75% of the youth participants were White, which prevented any analysis of disproportionate minority contact. However, 25% of the sample comprised children of color. Future studies should examine whether participation in this program by police officers influences their attributions and expectations that are based on race and ethnicity.

In addition, other aspects of police officer’s attitudes and opinions should also be explored to see whether these programs influence attitudes that were not captured in the surveys used in the current study. Furthermore, the findings reported here examined attitudes and opinions only at the completion of the program. Long-term change for these participants should be tracked to see whether these short-term programs can produce long-term changes.

In line with attribution theory, the findings in this study suggest that positive experiences can alter negative perceptions, allowing participants to change their attitudes about those in the other group. Specifically, creating opportunities for positive interactions between police and youth may be a viable way to improve opinions about members of the other group. This is particularly true when the program includes practical activities shared by police and youth, such as a community service project. The current findings suggest that a correlation may exist between youths’ positive perceptions of their environments and positive attitudes toward the police. In this case, shared experiences in a positive environment lead to improved attitudes of youth toward police while improving the feelings of youth about their community.

About the Authors

Samantha A. Goodrich, PhD, was a research assistant and doctoral student at the Center for Applied Research in Human Development at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, at the time of this writing. Currently, Dr. Goodrich is a senior research and evaluation scientist at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

Stephen A. Anderson, PhD, is director of the Center for Applied Research in Human Development at the University of Connecticut, Storrs.

Valerie LaMotte, JD is a policy development coordinator at the Criminal Justice Policy and Planning Division at the State of Connecticut Office of Policy and Management.

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APPENDIX A

Youth Survey

  Attitude Toward Police Strongly Disagree Disagree Uncertain Agree Strongly Agree

1

It is possible for youth and police officers to get along

1

2

3

4

5

2

Police officers help keep my neighborhood safe

1

2

3

4

5

3

Police officers and youth in my community can work together

1

2

3

4

5

4

Youth and police officers can have positive relationships

1

2

3

4

5

5

I feel comfortable when I see police on the street

1

2

3

4

5

6

Police officers have a positive role in society

1

2

3

4

5

7

I expect that the police I see on the street will bother my friends or me

1

2

3

4

5

8

I feel positively toward police officers

1

2

3

4

5

9

Police officers play an important role in stopping crime

1

2

3

4

5

10

I generally have positive interactions with police officers.

1

2

3

4

5

11

Police officers are respectful of people like me

1

2

3

4

5

12

Police officers don’t communicate very well

1

2

3

4

5

13

Police officers show concern when you ask them questions

1

2

3

4

5

14

Police officers play an important role in making my neighborhood a better place

1

2

3

4

5

 

  Attitude Toward Community Strongly Disagree Disagree Agree Strongly Agree

1

I take an active role in my community.

1

2

3

4

2

I am someone who gives to benefit others.

1

2

3

4

3

I like to work with others to solve problems.

1

2

3

4

4

I have things I can offer to others.

1

2

3

4

5

I believe I can make a difference in my community.

1

2

3

4

6

I care about contributing to make the community a better place.

1

2

3

4

7

It is important to make a difference in the community.

1

2

3

4

Police Survey

  Attitude Toward Youth Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree

1

Young people are positive assets to my community

1

2

3

4

5

2

Young people are hard-working

1

2

3

4

5

3

Teenagers are disrespectful

1

2

3

4

5

4

Teenage behavior is a major problem for police today

1

2

3

4

5

5

Teenagers are lazy

1

2

3

4

5

6

Young people are self-centered

1

2

3

4

5

7

Young people are thoughtful

1

2

3

4

5

8

Teenagers who make mistakes deserve a second chance

1

2

3

4

5

9

Teenagers are motivated

1

2

3

4

5

10

Teenagers are courteous

1

2

3

4

5

 

  Self-efficacy in Working with Youth Not at all confident Somewhat not confident Neutral Somewhat confident Very Confident

1

Develop positive relations with youth

1

2

3

4

5

2

Help youth develop to their potential

1

2

3

4

5

3

De-escalate conflict when interacting with youth

1

2

3

4

5

4

Serve as a role model for young people

1

2

3

4

5

5

Start a conversation with youth

1

2

3

4

5

6

Work on a community project with youth

1

2

3

4

5

7

Help to make a teen feel comfortable in a new group

1

2

3

4

5

8

Interact with youth from diverse backgrounds

1

2

3

4

5

9

Get youth to work together on a group project

1

2

3

4

5

10

Initiate a conversation with a young person

1

2

3

4

5

11

Ask a young person for help

1

2

3

4

5

12

Teach young people to be responsible

1

2

3

4

5

13

Teach youth about tolerance and diversity

1

2

3

4

5

14

Build rapport with youth and families from diverse backgrounds

1

2

3

4

5

15

Refer youth to appropriate community or crisis services

1

2

3

4

5

16

Relate to parents and family members following a youth offense 

1

2

3

4

5

 

  Perceived Impact on Youth Strongly Disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly Agree

1

It is important for police officers to devote time to building positive relationships with youth

1

2

3

4

5

2

Interactions between patrol officers and youth make a positive difference in the lives of youth

1

2

3

4

5

3

Patrol officers can have a positive impact on youth without taking time away from their enforcement activities

1

2

3

4

5

4

Positive interactions with youth are an important part of community policing efforts

1

2

3

4

5

5

Police officers can help eliminate unequal treatment of minority youth

1

2

3

4

5

 

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