Responding to Minority Youth: Policing by TOTALS

Equality in society depends on government agents being legitimate while providing opportunities and protections for all citizens. Citizens’ perceptions demonstrate their understanding of whether their interactions and contacts with government agents in the mainstream arena reflect 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 Service (TAPS) Academy, I present a perspective from both youth and law enforcement.

Founded by the Houston (Texas) Police Department and funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) of the U.S. 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, teamwork, bullying, truancy, dating, and others along with a service-learning project. Pre- and post-program evaluations show 30–50 percent positive changes for youth as compared to control groups in areas of trust, connectedness, like, and respect. In addition, post-program 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 host 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). Overall, 59 percent of White Americans have confidence in the police as compared to only 37 percent of Black Americans (Economist 2014). This nearly poisonous relationship erodes the public trust and weakens the social contract that holds a society together. Citizens must believe they have equality with law enforcement in order for the groups to bond and the citizens to become law abiding. They must believe that “playing by the rules” pays off justly and fairly and is rewarded (Hirschi 1969); the fact that many do not raises 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 an African-American male teenager (Penn forthcoming). This legal cynicism (Sampson and Bartusch 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 young man quoted above has a one-in-three chance of going to prison in his lifetime (Knafo 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 such as those 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. In addition, the mother of some of the children died of a heart attack in the aftermath. The grand jury declined to indict the officers who shot Mr. Crawford (Economist 2014). The statistics are grim for both African Americans and the police: roughly 29 percent of Americans shot by police were African-American. African Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population and 42 percent of cop killers when the race of the offender is known. In 2014 alone, more than 46 police officers were shot dead (Economist 2014). In retaliation to the killing of Mr. Garner, 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 Rafael Ramos and Wenjian 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 forthcoming).

The social distance (Bogardus 1933) between minority youth and police is extensive and is well-defined in the literature. President Obama  convened the President’s 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 synthesizes 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 Implicit Bias (Kirwan Institute 2016) , Minority Group Threat (Blalock 1967), and Social Distance (Penn 2013; Bogardus 1933) 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 simplest 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 from the police? In addition, 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 more than 30 years, yet the perceptions of law enforcement have not risen and have even fallen in minority communities. One’s perception of safety is one’s reality. What is being done to make people feel safer beyond Uniform Crime Reports (UCR)? Are there ways to reward officers beyond the number of arrests?  Finally, everyday men and women in more than 12,500 law enforcement agencies in the United States provide society’s line of authority; once this line has been passed, there would be chaos and an end to society as we know it. Law enforcement personnel 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 TAPS Academy, Fair and Impartial Policing, and Coffee with a Cop are tools to bring community policing to the most disenfranchised citizens.

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.



Blalock, Hubert. 1967. Toward a Theory of Minority Relations. New York: Wiley.

Bogardus, Emory. 1933. “A Social Distance Scale.” Sociology and Social Research 17: 265–271.

Hirschi, Travis. 1969. Causes of Delinquency. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jones, Chenelle, Everette B. Penn, and Shannon Davenport. 2015.  “Social distance between minority youth and police: An exploratory analysis of the TAPS Academy.” Journal of Juvenile Justice 4(1).

Kirk, David S., and Robert J. Sampson. 2011. “Crime and the Production of Safe Schools.” In Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murname, eds., Whither Opportunity?: Rising Inequality, School, and Children’s Life Chances. 397–417. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Kirwan Institute. 2016. “Understanding Implicit Bias.” Accessed April 19, 2016.
Laub, John. 2014. Understanding Inequality and the Justice System Response: Charting a New Way Forward. New York: William T. Grant Foundation.

Long, Colleen, and Jennifer Peltz. 2014. “Gunman Kills 2 Officers after Garner Death.” Houston Chronicle. December 21.

Lumpkin, Brian, and Everette B. Penn. 2013. “Can Police Officers Be Effective Mentors for At-Risk Youth?” The Police Chief 80(3): 26–29.

Penn, Everette B. 2013. TAPS Academy and the Adoption of Policing by TOTALS. Presented at the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives conference, Pittsburgh, PA, August 2–8.

Penn, Everette B. 2013. “Reducing the Social Distance Between Minority Teens and Police.” Juvenile Justice Information Exchange. Last modified October 7, 2003.

Penn, Everette B. Forthcoming. Race and Juvenile Justice, 2nd Ed. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

The Economist. 2014. “Don’t Shoot.”   December 13.

Sampson, Robert J.,   and Dawn Jeglum Bartusch. 1998. “Legal Cynicism and (Subcultural?) Tolerance of Deviance: The Neighborhood Context of Racial Differences.” Law and Society Review 32(4): 777–804.

Knafo, Saki. 2013. “1 in 3 Black Males Will Go to Prison in Their Lifetime, Report Warns.” Huffington Post. October 4.    

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