Responding to Strained Minority Youth and Police Relations: Policing by TOTALS

Please send comments to:  Everette B. Penn at

Equality in society depends on the functions of government to be legitimate while providing opportunities and protections for all citizens. Perceptions from the citizens reflect their understanding of whether their interactions and contact within the mainstream arena provide a fair and just process. Arguably there is no system today under more scrutiny concerning questions of equality than American policing and its interaction with African American and Latino youth.  As director and a co-founder of The Teen And Police (TAPS) Academy, I present a perspective from both youth and law enforcement. 

Founded by the Houston Police Department and funded by the Community Oriented Policing (COPS) Office of the Department of Justice, the TAPS Academy provides an 11-week curriculum to the most at-risk youth in juvenile facilities, alternative schools, and low performing high schools in which police officers and teens learn together about subjects affecting them most, including youth and police interaction, conflict resolution, drugs, team-work, bullying, truancy, dating and others along with a service-learning project. Pre- and post-evaluations show 30%-50% positive changes for youth as compared to control groups in areas of “trust,” “connectedness,” “like” and “respect.” Additionally, post evaluation shows that police officers increase their understanding of youth, which enables them to more effectively handle interactions with youth in the community (Lumpkin and Penn 2013).

A score of literature confirms that minority youth, especially African American, has the lowest amount of “trust,” “like,” “connectedness” and “legitimacy” for police (Jones, Penn and Davenport 2015). “I would kill police if I had a gun” is what young minority men have said their first day of interaction with police officers in the TAPS Academy (Penn 2015). Overall, 59% of white Americans have confidence in the police as compared to only 37% of blacks (Policing 2014). This nearly poisonous relationship erodes the public trust and weakens the social contract which holds a society together. Citizens must believe they have equality in a society in order for them to bond and become law abiding citizens. They must believe that “playing by the rules” pays off justly and fairly and is rewarded (Hirschi 1969), thus raising questions about perceptions of authority and the law in general (Laub 2014). In some minority communities in the United States police are seen as “an occupying force fighting a war against us just because we live in a poor neighborhood,” said a teenage African American male (Penn 2016). This legal cynicism (Sampson and Barusch 1998) has been found to be correlated with the disadvantaged and high rates of violence (Kirk and Papachristos 2011).

Violence, crime and victimization rates make for constant contact among minority youth and the police. With this reality of race and place, the African American male quoted above has a one-in-three-chance of going to prison in his lifetime (Sentencing Project 2013). This ongoing, daily struggle between members of minority communities and law enforcement has the characteristics of war as death occurs on both sides. Recent stories of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have triggered public protest but other deaths should also be noted. For example, John Crawford was in an Ohio Walmart toy aisle holding an air rifle he planned to buy. As he talked on the phone and looked at other items he passed several children and their parents. Video footage shows there was no concern from the parents or children. When police responded to a 911 caller stating “A black man with a gun was threatening people,” they shot the 22-year-old Crawford dead. Additionally the mother of the children died of a heart attack in the aftermath. The grand jury declined to indict the officers who shot Mr. Crawford (Policing 2014). The statistics are grim for both African Americans and the police: roughly 29% of Americans shot by police were African American. African Americans make up about 13% of the United States population and 42% of cop killers when the race of the offender is known. In 2014 alone, over 46 police officers were shot dead (Policing 2014). In retaliation to the Garner killing, Ismaaiyl Brinsley wrote on his Instagram account: “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours, let’s take 2 of theirs” (Long and Peltz 2014). Brinsley would later assassinate New York City officers Ramos and Liu before taking his own life. Hatred for police is so embedded in the minds of many minority youth that self-protection is seen as the logical response. One African American teenage girl stated: “I have more faith in my papa’s gun than the police. They ain’t no good.” (Penn 2016). 

The social distance (Bogardus 1933) between minority youth and police is extensive and is well-defined in the literature. President Obama convened the Task Force on 21st Century Policing and charged it with strengthening community policing and strengthening trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. The Task Force examined, among other issues, how to build public trust and foster strong relationships between local law enforcement and the communities that they protect, while also promoting effective crime reduction. A response to the recommendations is for law enforcement leaders to view their agencies through a lens of policing minority youth. I first proposed these questions called Policing by TOTALS at the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) in 2013. It was and continues to be well-received. Policing by TOTALS synthesis the research to ask questions for policy and implementation.

Policing By TOTALS
Trust- Starting from the premise that bias (explicit and implicit) exists the question becomes what is being done agency wide to build relationships and understanding between the most disenfranchised communities and the police? Citizens must believe in the legitimacy of the agency and the local law enforcement officer. 

Openness- Is the agency seeking and perusing opportunities to listen and learn from the most disenfranchised? Theories such as Developmental, Minority Threat, and Social Distance provide an understanding for fears, misunderstandings and biases. All citizens have value and venues must exist allowing for dialogue and discovery.

Transparency- What are the procedures for all citizens to engage in due process?  All people should have voice thus access to information is important to facilitate interaction. Access to information and interaction among groups promotes accountability. The use of body cameras, outside investigations and reports will assist in creating opportunities for citizens to know the functions and operations of their law enforcement agency.

Accessibility- Community Policing in its most simplistic format brings policing to the citizen. Yet there must be an understanding at the citizen level and throughout the agency command of what Community Policing means in practice. What is being done to bring policing to the most disenfranchised and those with the greatest social distance with the police? Additionally are those communities being oriented to understand, implement and respond to community policing?

Legitimacy- Citizens comply when they feel local policing is legitimate. Procedural Justice practices of voice, respect, neutrality, understanding, and helpfulness, evolve individual police actions into citizens’ perceptions of fairness by law enforcement, moving citizen and police relations beyond “us versus them” practices.  

Safety- Crime is at its lowest levels in over 30 years, yet the positive perceptions of law enforcement have not risen and have even dropped in minority communities. The perception of safety is one’s reality. What is being done to make people feel safer beyond Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)? Are their ways to reward officers beyond the number of arrests?  Finally everyday men and women in over 12,500 law enforcement agencies in the United States provide society’s line of authority, once passed there would be chaos and an end to society as we know it. Those officers must have the training and authority to best perform their duties honorability and safely every day.  

Policing by TOTALS provides a starting point to bridge the gap that currently exists between minority youth, their communities and law enforcement. COPS Office funded programs such as the Teen And Police Service (TAPS) Academy, Fair and Impartial Policing, and Coffee with a Cop are tools to bring community policing to the most disenfranchised citizens.

Bogardus, E. (1933). A social distance scale. Sociology and Social Research. 17: 265-271.
Gold, E. & Bradley, M. (2013), The case for procedural justice: Fairness as a crime prevention tool. Community Policing Dispatch: COPS Office, United States Department of Justice. Washington, D.C.  
Hirschi, T. (1969). Causes of delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press. 
Jones, C., Penn, E., & Davenport, S. (2015). Race and social distance between minority youth and police: An exploratory analysis of the TAPS Academy.” Journal of Juvenile Justice. Vol. 6. Winter. 
Kirk, D., & Papachristos, A. (2011). Crime and the production of safe schools. In Greg J. 
Duncan and Richard J. Murname, eds., Whither opportunities? Rising inequality school, and children’s life chances. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Laub, J. (2014). Understanding inequality and the justice system response: Charting a new way forward. William T. Grant Foundation: New York. December 2014. 
Long, C. & Peltz, J. (2014). Gunman kills 2 officers after Garner death. Houston Chronicle. December 21, 2014. A.17.
Lumpkin, B. & Penn, E. (2013). Can police officers be effective mentors for at-risk youth? The Police Chief vol. LXXX, no. 3, March 2013: 26-29
Penn, E. (2013). TAPS Academy and the adoption of policing by TOTALS. Presented at the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives international meeting, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. August 2013. 
Penn, E. (2016 forthcoming) Race and juvenile justice, 2nd Ed. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.
“Policing: Don’t shoot.” (2014)  Economist. December 13-19: 27-28.
Sampson, R. &  Bartusch, D. (1998). Legal cynicism and (subcultural?) tolerance of deviance: The neighborhood context of racial differences. Law and Society Review 27: 285-311. 
Sentencing Project (2013). One in three black males will go to prison in their lifetime, report warns.    

Author: Dr. Everette B. Penn is Professor of Criminology, Department Chair of Social and Cultural Sciences at the University of Houston- Clear Lake and Director of the Teen And Police Service (TAPS) Academy. More information can be found at


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