They can be defiant, contemptuous of authority, and heedless of how their actions will affect their future.
Adolescents possess little of the reasoning and judgment that keep most adults out of trouble, according to recent scientific research that has encouraged more training of judges, prosecutors, and probation officers to realize that juveniles in the criminal justice system should be treated differently than their grown-up counterparts.
But, according to a survey by a Cambridge-based organization that trains police to deal with juveniles, little of that training is reaching those at the front lines of confrontations with wayward youth: police officers.
Police academies in 37 states, including Massachusetts, spend no more than 1 percent of their training hours on juvenile justice issues, the survey conducted by Strategies for Youth found.
Only two states in the country make training on youth development and communication with teenagers a priority in the written curriculum.
And most academies do not teach recruits how to recognize and interact with juveniles who have been traumatized or have mental health disorders.
Arrest numbers of juveniles underscore how critical that training is, according to the survey. Every year officers arrest about 2.1 million people under 18, mostly for minor offenses such as disorderly conduct and trespassing. Only 12 percent of juvenile arrests are for serious offenses, a statistic that suggests that police are too quick to arrest teenagers and children.
There are no official Massachusetts numbers for juvenile arrests. Youths 16 and under are considered juveniles in the Bay State court system.
“All the data show that arrests can really, utterly alter a kid’s life,” said Lisa H. Thurau, executive director of Strategies for Youth, which surveyed 50 states on their academy training curriculum between fall 2011 and fall 2012. “We really need to think about how we effectively interact with kids in addition to arrests and alternatives. That’s what the entire juvenile justice world is saying and police need to know it, too.”
Most states are cutting police training, including Massachusetts, where funding has gone from $3.7 million in fiscal 1999 to $2.52 million in fiscal 2012.
Governor Deval Patrick has pushed for more funding by calling for a surcharge on auto insurance policies, said Dan Zivkovich, executive director of the Municipal Police Training Committee, which sets the curriculum followed by most recruits training at the 10 police academies across the state. “The Legislature has no appetite for it,” he said.
State Representative Brian S. Dempsey, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the panel has reviewed all of Patrick’s budget proposals.
“Before advancing any legislative recommendations, it is important that we analyze all aspects of the issue thoroughly to better anticipate and understand the immediate and long-term effects on our Commonwealth,” he said in a statement.
Zivkovich said his agency spent the past year overhauling the current 800-hour curriculum for recruits, the first time that has happened in 15 years.
Juvenile issues will be updated to focus on research about adolescent development and how it affects relationships with police, Zivkovich said.
“It has not been until relatively recently that the police training profession and the police profession have recognized that it was the initial interactions and perceptions between officers and teenagers that set the stage for the outcome,” he said.
Thurau, whose group is working with Zivkovich as they overhaul the curriculum, said academies should spend at least 14 hours of their training on issues concerning juveniles.
Police in other agencies have supplemented training with other programs that address interactions with juveniles.
In Cambridge, a child psychologist meets regularly with officers from the department’s Youth and Family Services Unit. The department also refers to the psychologist juveniles who have had confrontations with officers and may be at risk of becoming more involved in the criminal system.
MBTA Transit Police, which runs its own training academy, and Everett police have done role-playing with teenagers during training in an effort to understand each other better.
The decline in arrests show such efforts work, Thurau said. In Everett, juvenile arrests fell from 83 in 2007 to 40 in 2010. The MBTA saw arrests drop from 646 in 1999 to 74 in 2009.
MBTA Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan said many problems can escalate from a simple interaction such as an officer telling a group of teens not to loiter at a train station.
“You might approach the student and say, ‘How about that Super Bowl yesterday or how was school today,’ just to break the ice, as opposed to, ‘Hey, you can’t stand here,’ said MacMillan. “In the old days, we would teach our officers to be assertive in the academy, because you have to be. But what we’re saying now is when you’re speaking to a juvenile about a minor offense, you don’t need that assertiveness because it’s going to backfire on you.”
Everett Police Chief Steven A. Mazzie said Strategies for Youth surveyed teenagers in his city about how police could improve relations. “The three things that were mentioned,” he said, “was to wave, smile, and say hello, which doesn’t cost us a lot of money.”
Maria Cramer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.