Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from Baltimore, made eye contact with a police officer and, at that moment, decided to run. There was seemingly little reason he would choose to do so, as he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Tragically, Gray died in police custody when he was being transported to a police station.
Walter Scott, an older man from South Carolina, also ran from police officers after a traffic stop. He had a warrant out for his arrest, which might partly explain his fleeing the scene. He was shot and killed by the pursuing officer.
While reasons for running from the police are varied, it is not uncommon, especially in high-crime neighborhoods.
In her book “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” University of Madison-Wisconsin sociologist Dr. Alice Goffman discusses the perils of being caught up in the criminal justice system and of cooperating (or being perceived to cooperate) with the police. She describes in detail the socialization of young kids into a culture that is distrustful and fearful of the police. Essentially, kids are taught at a young age to run from the police and they “practice” this with older mentors in their neighborhoods.
Sociological factors are not the only ones that may explain why some would run, however. Biology may also play a role. Rita Turner, a lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, points out that lead exposure and dietary intake, as well as social stressors such as poverty, abuse and discrimination, all place physiological burdens on the body.
In fact, recent research in JAMA Pediatrics by Dr. Joan Luby claims that “poverty’s most insidious damage” is to the development of the juvenile brain. When stressors outweigh our social supports (such as a comforting family and supportive school), the brain can experience a hormonal imbalance. When it comes to relations with police, the most relevant imbalance involves cortisol, the hormone that influences our response to “flight or fight” situations.
For those dealing with a cortisol imbalance, the brain often does not make the “best” choice. On one hand, research finds that when cortisol is low (hypocortisolism), people don’t adequately regulate fear and anxiety. This can lead to a resort to violence as a form of “stand and fight” — as was perhaps highlighted by a suspect’s recent shooting of New York City Police officer Brian Moore.
On the other hand, when stress leads to an overproduction of cortisol (hypercortisolism), individuals become depressed and anxious, resulting in an “unthinking” decision to run.
A young man such as Freddie Gray, who grew up in an impoverished area of a dangerous inner-city area in Baltimore, was likely to be facing many challenges.
We do not know if he had biological issues related to hypercortisolism, but it would not be surprising if he did. Gray might have made the “best” choice he could at the moment.
In any case, simply fleeing from the police does not necessarily indicate a person has done something wrong or that he or she is a criminal. It might merely indicate that there are biological and social pressures to do so.
Cortisol is only one biological factor, among many, that influences decision-making. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter that intensifies sensation-seeking, is increasing during the early teen years, making it particularly influential in juvenile decision-making. Along with a still developing prefrontal cortex, high levels of dopamine drive teens to seek rewards — usually from their peers — with little regard for consequences.
Certainly, bad choices are bad choices and, as a society, we cannot condone antisocial behavior. However, like most things, teens do grow out of it. As psychologist Dr. Laurence Steinberg details in his new book “Age of Opportunity,” in the late 20s, hormones level off, brain development completes (around age 25), and young people move into prosocial societal roles like marriage, work and parenthood. All that is associated with a decrease in antisocial behavior.
An approach to juvenile crime prevention where police and service providers view actions as behaviors based on powerful biological and environmental factors can be the key to keeping people safe.
This empathetic approach does not view criminal behavior as justifiable. But in attempting to explain why people might do apparently foolish things — like run from the police — it may point us toward the answers we desperately need.
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