NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Following a 10 On Your Side investigation into the Norfolk Police Department’s use of force on minors this week, our investigative team took our data analysis to two experts.
The investigation uncovered that Norfolk officers used force on youth more than 270 times since 2016, and 86% of the time, those minors were Black.
Lisa Thurau is the founder of Strategies for Youth Inc., a nonprofit organization that trains police departments across the country on how to effectively interact with adolescents while on the job. Kristin Henning is an attorney, law professor, and the author of a recently-published book titled “The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth.”
Both were not surprised by what the data revealed. They said the racial disparities found in Norfolk’s use of force data reflect a pattern of policing seen in departments across America.
“There are racial disparities at every single stage of the juvenile legal system,” Henning said.
Although available data shows that those racial disparities exist, those disparities can be hard to track as they pertain to youth and use of force, Thurau said.
“In our experience around the country at Strategies for Youth, we find that many law enforcement agencies around the country do not even collect this data on use of force with youth,” Thurau said.
Norfolk is the only local police department to release detailed use of force data to the public. It’s stored in an online database that’s updated daily. The database provides detailed information about why a person was stopped, what type of force was used on them, and the demographic information about the citizens and officers involved. Other Hampton Roads police departments publish general use of force statistics annually.
“When you have data like the kind you’re showing, that it’s disproportionately youth of color by a giant magnitude here getting harmed by law enforcement officers, this is a call for action now,” Thurau said.
Henning and Thurau said the disparities seen in policing across the country stem from a multitude of racial issues steeped deeply in American history. A recent study showed that one of those issues is that citizens and police alike perceive Black youth to be older than they actually are.
“A lot of officers this has really been supported by research, age up Black youth by four to five years,” Thurau said.
Those presumptions about age can lead to assumptions about maturity, too.
“The presumption is that they know what they’re doing and they’re intentionally acting in a way that requires control and subjugation,” Thurau said.
Henning said that police must develop strategies to recognize Black youth as children. She said officers can accomplish this by observing minors for traits of adolescence, like facial features, youthful clothing and language, proximity to locations like schools, and carrying items like backpacks.
“When we think about normal adolescent behaviors among Black and brown youth we are much more likely to perceive those behaviors as threatening, as criminal, and we respond in that way by arresting, stopping, frisking them. Using force when a child talks back, instead of recognizing adolescent responses,” Henning said.
Henning believes that police departments must assess their policies, train their officers on adolescent development and de-escalation for strategies for youth, and set limitations on use of force involving minors.
“I’m thinking of ways in which we can radically reduce the footprint of police officers in the lives of children,” Henning said.