Researchers investigate impact of police stops on youth mental health

Oct. 7, 2019 — New research from The University of Texas at San Antonio reveals that youths who experience intrusive police stops are at risk of heightened emotional distress. The findings come from a study by assistant professors Dylan Jackson, Chantal Fahmy and Alexander Testa in UTSA’s Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice, who collaborated with professor Michael Vaughn from St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice.

According to the study, intrusive police stops were defined by frisking, harsh language, searches, racial slurs, threat of force or use of force. The study examines the connection between features of police stops and youths’ emotional distress during the stop, social stigma after the stop and post-traumatic stress after the stop.

The researchers found that youths who were stopped often by police officers were more likely to report emotional trauma. Their findings show that youths’ perceptions of their negative encounters with officers could also be harmful to their mental health.

The data were collected between 2014 and 2017 from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a large, national study of at-risk families and their children born between 1998 and 2000. Data for this study involved 918 youths who reported being stopped by police during their lifetime.

⇒ Review the researchers’ study, “Police Stops Among At-Risk Youth: Repercussions for Mental Health.”

“We found that 27% of this urban-born sample of at-risk youth reported being stopped by police by age 15,” said Jackson. “While not all encounters were experienced as hostile or threatening, our results suggest that when stops were characterized by a greater number of intrusive officer behaviors, youth perceptions of heightened social stigma and experiences of post-traumatic stress were more likely to follow.”

Emotional distress was measured by asking youths whether they felt safe, scared or angry during the police encounter. Youths also reported feelings of stigma following the stop, for example, if they avoided people for fear of others thinking of them in a negative way, if people have used the incident to make fun of them, and if they hid the fact that they were stopped from friends and family.

To measure post-traumatic stress following the stop, youths were asked whether the situation brings back negative feelings of being stopped, whether or not images of the stop pop into their head, and whether or not they suffer from physical reactions, such as sweating, trouble breathing or having a pounding heart.

The researchers uncovered another detail overlooked by other research. They found that youths who were stopped by police officers at school reported more emotional distress and negative reactions than those who were stopped in other locations. This was especially true in the case of youths with little to no history of delinquency.

“It may be that being stopped in the school setting, which is known for its structure and conventionality, is experienced as more shameful for these youths,” Jackson said.

Researchers concluded that youths may benefit when social workers, school counselors and mental health providers intervene to offer care and services to help them deal with feelings of shame and trauma after police stops. In addition, efforts to enhance police-community relations—especially police-youth relations—might help to minimize the adverse health consequences of police stops among youths.

“Ultimately,” Fahmy said, “our study suggests that police-youth relations are in need of improvement, particularly in an era characterized by an upsurge in officers stationed at schools. For example, to help alleviate some of the distress among youths who have been stopped, officers can engage in comprehensive preparatory awareness training on what the procedures are when stopping someone suspected of a crime.”

–Michelle Skidmore

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