Shifting inner-city juveniles’ perceptions of the police

Sgt. Delmar Williams

Sgt. Delmar Williams works with members of a STOP group.

What would it take to start an exponential shift of juveniles’ negative perceptions of the police?

Police harass us. They stop us for no reason. Juveniles living in vulnerable neighborhoods commonly hold such perceptions about the police officers who patrol their communities, say Associate Professor Kimberly Hassell and Assistant Professor Tina Freiburger, both in the Criminal Justice Department at UWM’s Helen Bader School of Social Welfare (HBSSW).

“Relationships between police and inner-city juveniles are in a state of national crisis. Many police officers do not understand juveniles’ perspectives and most juveniles do not understand why the police do the things that they do,” Hassell says.

This year, the Milwaukee Police Department (MPD) launched a far-reaching program, called Students Talking it Over with Police, or STOP, in collaboration with HBSSW and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee.

Hassell and Freiburger were charged with developing an evaluation to uncover and document STOP’s impact and to assist in replication efforts.

Associate Professor Kimberly Hassell (left) and Assistant Professor Tina Freiburger are evaluating the STOP program for MPD.

The program aims at changing perceptions and was developed by the MPD’s District 5 Community Prosecution Unit (CPU) officers. The program is headed by Officers William Singleton and Cullin Weiskopf, who had been challenged by Chief Edward Flynn to find a way to engage and educate youth identified as future leaders in inner-city areas. Youths in the program learned about the nature of urban police work, the nature of crime in their neighborhoods, the reasons police stop persons to question them and how to conduct themselves with police during a field or traffic encounter.

More than 600 youths between the ages of 8 and 18 participated in the pilot program, which was offered through several after-school programs at Boys & Girls clubs.

Youths were divided into three groups: One group received the STOP program information from District 5 CPU officers; one group received the same information from Hassell and Freiburger; and the third group received no information.

The results were extremely encouraging. Participants in the CPU and UWM groups increased their general knowledge of the police and specific knowledge regarding conduct during police encounters, but only the CPU group members positively changed their perceptions of the police.

STOP student playing district game with officers

STOP student playing district game with officers

These findings document two key points: It is important that juveniles interact directly with officers, and that police personally facilitate programs such as STOP.

In addition, participants reported that they spread the word about their positive interactions with the police to their families and friends, suggesting STOP’s messages could be passed on exponentially.

Because of the carefully documented processes and research methodology, STOP is poised to become a national model that can be easily replicated by other agencies. In October, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which has 20,000 members in 100 countries, recognized the importance of this research by awarding MPD their Excellence in Law Enforcement Research Award at its annual convention.

For now, MPD intends a citywide implementation through Milwaukee Public Schools, continuing to rely on Hassell and Freiburger for empirical documentation of the program’s influence and reach.

Last year, the HBSSW awarded the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee its Research Partner of the Year Award, in recognition of the strengths and potential of this particular collaboration.

“Doctors Hassell and Freiburger were a pleasure to work with,” says Sam Williams, executive vice president of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. “Their professional expertise added instant credibility to the STOP program.”