KIDS’ PERCEPTIONS OF POLICE FALL AS THEY AGE. FOR BLACK CHILDREN THE DECLINE STARTS EARLIER AND IS CONSTANT. The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and most recently Dijon Kizzee at the hands of officers come in an age when overpolicing and underserving minority communities has, as some experts believe, resulted in a “legitimacy crisis” in American policing.
The reality is that these events are also impacting children. Youth today are growing up in what has been described as an “era of mistrust” of police. Across racial and ethnic groups, youths’ perceptions of police have dropped in recent years to a decades-long low. Yet, the amount of the decline differs across demographic groups. In fact, Black youth report the most dramatic declines, and the gap between their perceptions and white youths’ perceptions has been increasing.
As scholars of policing and the criminal justice system, we study how and when perceptions of police change during childhood and adolescence. Studies have already shown that personal politics affects how people interpret news. But our research suggests this process may begin during the teenage years or even earlier. Research looking at high school seniors finds that how White youth perceive law enforcement depends on their political views. White students that identify as liberal or Democratic-leaning report worse perceptions of police, whereas White conservative youths report substantially better opinions of the police.
Yet political views do not seem to affect how Black teenagers view police. Black teenagers across the political spectrum report the most negative perceptions of police. It is perhaps not surprising that teens of color, and Black teenagers in particular, report the poorest perceptions of law enforcement — these perceptions reflect their lived reality where Black teenagers are often presumed criminal and unjust police stops result in stress, anxiety and depression.
It also likely reflects the frequent reminders that Black teenagers have of unjust interactions between police and Black communities – through social media as well as their own experiences and those of families and friends.
But our study found that perceptions of law enforcement take shape at much earlier ages. We surveyed nearly 1,000 children aged 7 to 14 in Southern California. At 7 years old, kids across all racial and ethnic backgrounds view law enforcement similarly in high regard. However, that does not last…While White youths’ perceptions of police remain relatively stable from the ages of 7 to 14…Black children’s perceptions decline even more rapidly and consistently beginning at around 7 to 8 years old.
As Black kids grow up from ages 7 to 14, their perceptions of law enforcement drop every year – we did not find an age at which Black youth one year older did not report significantly worse perceptions of law enforcement.