Study: Youth of color more likely to report emotional distress due to police stops

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Youth of color more likely to experience distress due to police stops
As he watches the happenings on his block, 27-year-old Logan can't help but reflect on all that he's seen from the front stoop of his West Philadelphia home. "The police always harass us," he said.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- As he watches the happenings on his block, 27-year-old Logan can't help but reflect on all that he's seen from the front stoop of his West Philadelphia home.

A lot of those experiences involve interactions with police.

"The police always harass us," said Logan, who preferred not to give his last name. "They'll park up and watch us. Or they'll tell us we can't be in front of a certain area. Then we go somewhere where the public can be, like a park or something, and they harass us there. It's a never-ending cycle."

That cycle has made Logan nervous every time he sees an officer.

"It's just a nerve-racking experience, especially for a young person of color," he said.

Logan's emotional distress makes perfect sense to the researchers involved in a new study.

RELATED: Racial disparities in Philadelphia police's use of stop-and-frisk, data shows

An Action News Investigation looked into police stops to shed more light on who is more likely to be stopped, and why.

It found that youth of color are more likely to report emotional distress just by witnessing police stops. The study found that youth of color are more likely to live in neighborhoods with repeated police interactions.

"This is the first study to look at adolescents and what happens when they witness police stops," said the study's co-author, Dr. Daniel Semenza of Rutgers University-Camden. "And we see these major racial disparities."

Semanza analyzed data along with other researchers, including Dylan Jackson, from Johns Hopkins University; Juan Del Toro, from the University of Pittsburgh; Alexander Testa, from the University of Texas; and Michael Vaughn, from St. Louis University. Explaining the group's findings, Semenza said youth of color are far more likely that white youth to report emotional distress partly because the stops they are involved in, or even just see, are more likely to be intrusive.

"When the officers are treating the person unfairly or when the officers are acting intrusively, frisking, using harsh language, racial slurs, things like that," he said.

Dr. Katherine Napalinga, a child & adolescent psychiatrist with Einstein Healthcare Network, said even witnessing those kinds of experiences can make a young person experience a range of emotions.

"It could be a source of trauma," she said. "The thought pattern would be 'that could be me.'"

She said parents need to talk to their kids about the issue, even if a child is just viewing video of police stops on social media or on the news.

"It's always good to start with open-ended questions and then just listen," she said, adding that parents can add more information for older children in an effort to create age-appropriate conversations.

It's a conversation Chilio Ponton is already having with his young son.

"I teach him not to be afraid (of police), but to be afraid," Ponton said of the caution he instructs his son to have, wanting him to trust police while still being aware that not all officers are the same. "All police are not bad... but there are some that just hide behind the shield."

The co-authors of the study suggest screening more children for anxiety or even PTSD. They also suggest more training for police and re-evaluation of police practices.

"There has to be an explanation of why a person is being stopped," he said. "Treatment of fairness and respect."

Experts also place a high value on police departments emphasizing positive interactions within communities. For example, Bensalem Police Department has created the "Copsicle" ice cream truck, giving out free treats to kids in the community.

It's an idea that Ponton wishes police in West Philadelphia would adopt along with regular appearances in the area.

"Walking the street helps because you're just like my neighbor. And I'm going to say hi to my neighbor," he said.