The Pillars of 21st Century Youth-focused Policing


The Final Report of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing points out how the mission of law enforcement is “to build trust between citizens and their peace officers so that all components of a community are treating one another fairly and justly and are invested in maintaining public safety in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”1 One of the keys to building trust in communities is more effective relations between law enforcement agencies and young people.

How law enforcement agencies police youth is critical to constructing confidence in those agencies designed to serve the public. To that end, youth-focused policing can employ the six pillars framework used by the task force:

  1. Building Trust and Legitimacy
  2. Policy and Oversight
  3. Technology and Social Media
  4. Community Policing and Crime Reduction
  5. Training and Education
  6. Officer Safety and Wellness

Building Trust and Legitimacy

The task force pointed out that people are more likely to “obey the law when they believe that those enforcing it have authority that is perceived as legitimate.”2 When it comes to engaging young people, law enforcement agencies must find a variety of ways to encourage officers to build trust and legitimacy with youth. Officers must exhibit a “guardian” rather than a “warrior” mentality. This is accomplished by ensuring that there are nonenforcement opportunities for positive interaction between youth and the police. Clarence Cox, Chief of the Clayton County (Georgia) Public Schools Office of Safety and Security, explains how his officers are involved in mentoring students throughout the year: “We talk, share, care, and show respect for young people. We emphasize that in order to build trust with our youth they need to know that police are a caring part of the community that we serve.”

Policy and Oversight

Policy is another powerful strategy that can be used to enhance youth-focused policing. Local policing policies must reflect local community values. Communities should aim to develop policies and strategies to reduce crime and improve relationships and engagement with young people.
Law enforcement leadership can work with local schools to develop policies that help lessen involvement of youth in the justice system. Recent developments in the United States, including the landmark School Discipline Consensus Report produced by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, have reinforced that the School Resource Officer’s (SRO) role is not to enforce school discipline rules. The report’s policy statement says:

“Educators and school officials do not call on officers to respond to students’ minor misbehavior that can be appropriately addressed through the school’s disciplinary process, and the officers use their discretion to minimize arrests for these offenses when possible.” 3

Technology and Social Media

The use of technology provides an opportunity to better engage youth and improve communications. One rapidly changing technology is social media.  Police agencies are using tools such as setting up their own Facebook page and Tweeting out information that provides details that may be left out by mainstream media. Because youth are often more comfortable than adults are using social media, by participating in these new media, law enforcement can set up methods of communications with youth that let the agencies provide needed information as well as collect information about rapidly evolving situations involving the public’s safety.

Community Policing and Crime Reduction

Community policing is about working with community residents—including youth—to co-produce public safety. For youth-focused policing that means engaging youth in the process of community safety, including their voice in testimony about the problems facing the community as well as in joint problem solving. Some law enforcement agencies are making a more conscious effort to engage youth as the eyes and ears of the department, with the aim of giving them a stake in the future of the community.

In an effort to reduce and prevent crime by youth in Rockland County, New York, in 2008 District Attorney Thomas Zugibe partnered with Spring Valley Police Chief Paul Modica and other police departments in the county to launch the Youth and Police Initiative (YPI)—an eight-day program of dialogue that aims to tear down stereotypes of youth and officers, develop mutual respect, and begin long-term positive relationships.

Training and Education

Law enforcement officers and leaders must be trained in a wide variety of areas involving youth, including how to engage young people positively, de-escalation techniques, understanding youth brain development, the impact of trauma and other mental health issues, cultural differences among youth populations, and more.

Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training—which state Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commissions should offer for basic recruit and in-service training, according to the task force—is an example of training that a number of agencies around the United States are using. The Montgomery County (Maryland) Police Department provides a 40-hour training course focused on handling incidents involving persons (including youth) with mental illness, developmental disabilities, co-occurring disorders (mental health and substance use), and brain injuries. All Montgomery County School Resource Officers are required to attend CIT training to learn about county resources that are available to youth in crisis.

Officer Safety and Wellness

Enhancing relationships with youth and the rest of the community will, in and of itself, enhance officer safety. For example, the Vancouver (Washington) Police Department provides youth workshops where role reversal techniques are used in mock scenarios to provide the opportunity for the youth to experience making decisions under pressure and how to de-escalate a tense situation. Officers then discuss with the youth what they observed and felt, if they perceived threats, and how and why they made decisions during the scenario.  This popular interaction has helped youth appreciate what officers must deal with; such awareness should have the benefit of a reduced threat to officer safety on the street.


Building trust between law enforcement and youth in our communities is a critical task for twenty-first century policing. By taking a closer look at each of the pillars used by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, law enforcement agencies can develop and implement effective youth-focused policing, and strengthen their relations with youth. This approach will pay off now and even more so in the future.

The article above is excerpted from the article, “21st Century Youth-Focused Policing: Engaging Youth Through the Six Pillars,” published in the March issue of IACP’s Police Chief magazine.

John Rosiak,
Prevention Partnerships
Rosiak Associates, LLC


1 President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Final Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2015),

2Ibid., 1.

3Emily Morgan et al., The School Discipline Consensus Report: Strategies from the Field to Keep Students Engaged in School and Out of the Juvenile Justice System (New York: The Council of State Government’s Justice Center, 2014), 183,

Back to top

COPS Office Photo Contest – April Winner | The Pillars of 21st Century Youth-focused Policing| Operation Conversation: Cops & Kids | Arizona Interdiction for the Protection of Children Program | 2016 COPS Office Solicitations