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Black children make up more than half of the incidents of police using force on kids


More than a year and a half after nationwide racial justice and law enforcement protests came with renewed calls to scale back police use of force, new reporting offers a look at how often such force is affecting children. An analysis this week from The Associated Press looked at more than 3,000 incidents of kids being handled forcibly by police, and more than half of the children were Black despite the fact that they make up just 15% of the child population in the country. Kristin Henning is director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown University's law school and joins us now to talk about this.

Welcome back to NPR.


MCCAMMON: You've represented Black youth in juvenile court cases for a long time. In your experience, what is it about how Black children are being perceived that might account for those disproportionate numbers?

HENNING: Really, America has a long history of failing to see Black children as children. And so when Black children engage in even normal adolescent behaviors, childhood play, they are more likely to be perceived as threatening or dangerous. And some fabulous research by Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff shows that we often perceive Black youth as 4.5 years older than they actually are. So all of this matters when an officer is making a split-second decision.

MCCAMMON: In your experience, what percentage of the time do you think a police response using some kind of force or restraint is absolutely necessary when it comes to the kids you've represented?

HENNING: Almost never. Very few children of any race engage in the types of violent and severe offenses that we are afraid of - like, 9% of all encounters. And so I think there are times, yes, when force is necessary. But the most of the times that we're reading about in the newspaper that I am seeing in my cases, force is absolutely not necessary.

MCCAMMON: You've talked and written about how Black youth are often denied the freedom to test boundaries in the same way that white teenagers are. How much do we know about the long-term impact of these forcible arrests on young client - your young clients?

HENNING: So there is research sort of documenting that longer-term impact. And what we're finding is that young people who experience - who live in heavily surveilled police neighborhoods experience high rates of fear, anxiety, hopelessness. Also, it has a significant impact on a child's sense of themselves - who they are, who they can become and whether or not it's worth it to even participate in mainstream society.

MCCAMMON: The AP analysis looked at data from the past 11 years. And, again, you've been working with kids in these situations for 25 years and know that use of force is having an outsized impact on Black and brown kids, that that's not a new phenomenon. What still needs to change here to make sure that kids who may be in situations involving law enforcement are being treated justly and fairly?

HENNING: We really have to have a significant cultural shift in our countrywide perspective of young Black children - that they are just children and not to be feared. And so there have been some youth-police dialogues or some efforts to really help police officers soften their perspective and understanding of Black youth. But then I think we've got to honestly radically reduce the footprint of police officers in the lives of children. And instead, we really have to invest in healthy alternatives for school safety, which includes teaching young people how to resolve conflicts.

MCCAMMON: That's Kristin Henning, director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic at Georgetown University's law school and author of "The Rage Of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth."

Thank you for speaking with us.

HENNING: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.