OP-ED: Reducing the Social Distance Between Minority Teens and Police

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Emory Bogardus developed in the 1920s the “social distance scale,” which has been used extensively to measure attitudes among racial groups. Bogardus’ research found that as contact and familiarity increase, social distance decreases. Put another way, as we spend more time around people of or from a different race, ethnicity, age, geographic location, or sexual orientation the stereotypes and damaging preconceived notions we hold about them decrease or are eliminated. Thus when social distance is reduced the characteristics of the person, rather than the image of the group, become most dominant. We learn to appreciate the similarities rather than the differences. Such practices are the foundation of international programs, State Department initiatives and cultural enrichment sessions.

Research clearly indicates that minority teens demonstrate the least trust for the police. These feelings develop out of negative (involuntary and voluntary) police contacts. Additionally, when these contacts occur they are shared with family and friends, often to lighten the burden because regular channels of regress are thought to be blocked or inaccessible. These shared experiences create a domino effect of anguish and anger toward the police, often existing in and expanding out to the entire group. Thus, others within the group who may not have had any contact with the police, or perhaps no positive contact, assume vicarious experiences that become their own, thus creating minority group hostility and distrust for the police.

When trying to understand the reasons for this distrust the origins may have come from slave patrols or the enforcement of unjust laws. Some of the earliest forms of policing in the United States were enacted to enforce laws based on race or ethnicity. The disjunction between minorities and police continued through practices such as detainments, irrelevant stops and profiling, unlawful arrests, use of unwarranted physical and deadly force, officer misconduct, and slower response times as well as fewer police services. These documented shortcomings by law enforcement to minority groups are often enhanced by a youth subculture that questions authority, as physical and mental development continues to occur. This conflict creates social distance that can escalate even routine interaction between teens and police.

The Teen And Police Service (TAPS) Academy (funded by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services) works to reduce the social distance between minority teens and police. By placing minority teens in an 11-week program with police officers they learn and grow together through a curriculum of topics such as conflict resolution, bullying and police interaction. TAPS Academy evaluations find minority teens as well as police officers learn about each other and remove the harmful barriers that exist between them. Pre- and post-test scores of the teens indicate 20 to 30 percent positive gains in “like of”, “respect for” and “trust of” police. Additionally police officers find that their understanding of teens also improves after completing TAPS Academy.

The benefits of reducing social distance between minority teens and law enforcement are many but one of the most significant is that better Community Policing can occur. TAPS Academy moves Community Policing one step further by taking its tenants – organizational transformation, problem-solving and partnerships – to the most removed group of citizens allowing them to be full participants in their own community through positive interaction with their local law enforcement officers. By reducing social distance these minority teens develop respect for authority and prosocial behavior that leads to reduced crime.


Dr. Penn is Director of the Teen And Police Service (TAPS) Academy and Department Chair of the Social and Cultural Sciences at the University of Houston- Clear Lake. More information about TAPS can be found at www.tapsacademy.org.     

This project was supported by a Cooperative Agreement 2011-CK-WX-K009 awarded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions contained herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. References to specific agencies, companies, products, or services should not be considered an endorsement by the author(s) or the U.S. Department of Justice. Rather, the references are illustrations to supplement discussion of the issues.


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