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Responses to the Problem of Disorderly Youth in Public Places

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it. Give special consideration to involving youth themselves in seeking solutions to the problems caused by their gathering in public.†

† See Kenney and Watson (1998) for a description of an effort to get high school students to apply problem-solving skills to address school safety issues.

There are three general approaches to addressing problems of disorderly youth in public places:

  • A pure control approach that views the youth as offenders whose conduct is to be controlled and prohibited coercively
  • A developmental approach that views the youth more neutrally and adopts methods that, in addition to controlling misconduct, seek to improve the youths' general welfare
  • An accommodation approach that balances the youths' needs and desires against the complainants' needs and desires.6

Whenever possible, the developmental and accommodation approaches are recommended because they are more likely to be effective, and they reduce mistrust and hostility between youth and authority figures, including police.7 The general public and the media tend to react negatively to what they perceive as heavy-handed police responses against youth. Parents commonly complain when police resort to arrest as a means of solving youth disorder problems. Some young people may even find the extra efforts of police and others to control their conduct exciting—a game of cat and mouse—making disorderly behavior even more appealing to them.8

The following are specific responses that police and others have applied to youth disorder in public. These responses variously incorporate pure control, developmental and accommodation approaches. They are organized into three categories: (1) creating alternative legitimate places and activities for youth, (2) modifying public places to discourage disorderly behavior, and (3) establishing and enforcing rules of conduct for youth.

Creating Alternative Legitimate Places and Activities for Youth

1. Creating new places for youth to congregate, and providing alternative activities.Recognizing that most young people want to hang out with their peers without excessive adult supervision, some police agencies have supported youth clubs, drop-in centers or recreation centers to attract youth who otherwise would be creating public disorder.9 In England, the Lancashire police arranged for youth to help an architect design a public youth shelter.10

Some shopping malls operate centers where youth can hang out without disturbing shoppers.11 Some police officers have helped to organize alternative constructive activities for young people such as youth clubs or athletic programs, and have given youth an active role in managing these programs.12, † If you go this route, you should take care not to become solely responsible for running a new program. You may be better advised just to call attention to the need for youth programs and activities rather than try to establish and run them yourself.

† Police athletic leagues, first started in New York City in 1914, are now an institutionalized means by which the police help provide alternative positive activities for youth. Part of their stated mission is to prevent juvenile delinquency.

2. Providing outreach services to youth. In addition to needing recreation, entertainment and a place to socialize, some young people need health, legal and social services that they do not or cannot obtain through normal channels. Some youth who create public disorder are supported by stable families, but others are not. Some are runaways, substance abusers, victims of child neglect and abuse, homeless, or prostitutes. Police can support initiatives to provide outreach services to youth.13 These services can be an effective bridge between youth and formal authorities like the police.14 Outreach workers can help identify particular needs of youth groups and individuals, and broker services and assistance for them. They can also remind youth to behave appropriately in public, without threatening them with enforcement.

3. Employing youth at businesses negatively affected by disorderly behavior. Some merchants have succeeded in reducing the incidence of youth disorder by employing qualified youth to work in establishments near where young people congregate. The employed youth have a greater sense of responsibility for and stake in maintaining order.15

Ensuring youth have adequate transportation to and from events. Event planners and parents do not always provide adequate transportation for youth, leaving large numbers of young people unsupervised on the streets before and after events. Special event and youth program managers should be encouraged to factor transportation costs into their financial calculations. Police in Newport News, Virginia, addressed a problem of disorderly youths' leaving a roller skating rink late at night by ensuring adequate transportation for them at closing time.16

Modifying Public Places To Discourage Disorderly Behavior

5. Encouraging youth to gather where they will not disturb others. If youth are congregating near a particular institution (school, business, tavern, or club), try to get that institution to work with you to persuade the youth to move where their behavior will not disturb others. If rival groups are gathering at the same location, try to change the times when the groups gather, or try to get one group to congregate elsewhere. Some officers have had bus stops relocated to prevent conflicts between rival youth groups. A Joliet, Illinois, police officer negotiated with a stadium owner to let youth congregate in a section of the stadium parking lot.17 Many police officers negotiate informal agreements with youth, for example, exchanging a degree of tolerance of rowdy behavior for keeping noise and litter under control.18

6. Avoiding locating businesses that attract youth where others will be intimidated by them.This response applies mainly to shopping malls where mall managers can determine the specific location of businesses. Fast-food restaurants and video arcades commonly attract large youth groups. If they are located near mall entrances and exits or along heavily traveled pathways, shoppers are forced to walk past the youth, and the potential for intimidation rises.19 Without training, mall managers may not have a good understanding of how design features and business locations can affect crime and disorder levels.20

7. Reducing the comfort level, convenience or attraction of popular youth gathering places.Eliminating comfortable places to sit or lean discourages youth from congregating in particular places (although it might prove a similar inconvenience for others).21 If the location is outdoors, consider modifying structures (bus shelters, shop doorways, playground equipment, park shelters, pedestrian tunnels, covered alleys, bridges) so that they do not offer much protection from the weather.22

The type of background music can also influence where youth choose to congregate: playing classical music, for example, can discourage some young people from hanging out within earshot of it.23 Intensifying the lighting where youth congregate can also make the location less attractive to them.24

Police in Edmonton, Alberta, worked with the community and other city agencies to landscape a park that had become a hangout for older youth who intimidated other park users and vandalized park property. The new park configuration made it more visible from adjacent roads. Problems declined without need for extra police enforcement.25 Police in Peel, Ontario, worked with school officials to redesign the school parking lot and hallways, thereby significantly reducing disorder problems caused by students and trespassers.26 Police in Delta, British Columbia, determined that video arcades' physical layout influenced youth disorder levels in and around them. They proposed local legislation that regulates video arcade design in ways that improve arcade employees' ability to monitor youth conduct.†

† The local law also regulates operation hours, occupancy limits, age restrictions, lighting, restroom access, and conduct rules in video arcades. The Delta Police Department's study of the problem and local law has served as a model across Canada (Sheard 1998).[Full Text]

If youth rely on cars to get to the location, or if cars are the attraction (part of a street cruising problem), consider altering parking regulations to limit youths' ability to gather a lot of cars in one place.27

8. Installing and monitoring closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras. CCTV, used extensively in the United Kingdom and generally supported by merchants, shoppers and the general public, has shown some effectiveness in controlling youth disorder in public places.28, † A Scottish study concluded that a CCTV camera positioned in a public town center had the effect of moving disorder incidents out of the camera's view, keeping fights among youth briefer, with fewer combatants. Overall, the CCTV reduced the actual number of disorder incidents, although the study noted that the number of recorded incidents might well rise due to the increased CCTV monitoring.29 Another U.K. study concluded that CCTV was more useful for alerting police to disorder incidents than for deterring disorder in the first place.30

† For a review of research on the effects of CCTV and street lighting on crime prevention, see Painter and Tilley (1999).[Full Text] See also Response Guide No. 4, Video Surveillance of Public Places.

An Effective Strategy in New York City

Police Officer Kevin O'Connor of New York City's Midtown North precinct faced an ongoing problem with disorderly youth for most of the 1991–92 school year. Each day at dismissal, students from both Park West High School on W. 50th Street and Graphic Arts High School on W. 49th Street would flood the blocks in the immediate neighborhood. Large and noisy groups would hang out in the area, and fights would all too often erupt.

O'Connor realized that the schools' procedures contributed to the disorderly youth gatherings—the schools were dismissing their students at almost exactly the same time, onto the same block of W. 50th Street. With energy running high, the crowding of all those teenagers onto one block produced a chaotic atmosphere that was perfect for escalating petty rivalries into full-scale confrontations—always noisy, sometimes violent and inevitably a major problem for those in the area.

O'Connor got in touch with administrators at both schools. The assistant principal of Park High helped O'Connor understand that "the problem is not only school rivalries, but ethnic and neighborhood rivalries. These schools draw students from different neighborhoods." O'Connor then met with the principals from both high schools, and persuaded them to stagger dismissal times and direct departing students in opposite directions. Since most of the students from Graphic Arts lived in Brooklyn, they would be dismissed at 2:30 p.m. and diverted to 49th Street, where they could catch the 8th Avenue trains back home. Students from Park High would be dismissed at 2:55 p.m., and since most lived in Washington Heights, they would be directed to the trains at 50th Street and Broadway.

This simple strategy—modifying the schools procedures—effectively discouraged the formation of disorderly groups at the end of the school day. O'Connor believes that the procedural changes reduced the after-school disorder problem by 70 percent.

Note: This account is excerpted with minor stylistic modifications from New York City Police Department (1993).

Establishing and Enforcing Rules of Conduct for Youth

9. Enlisting others to exercise informal social control over youth.You should support and reinforce the informal social control that others can exercise over young people. Enlist parents, school officials, employers, coaches, and others to establish and enforce standards of youth conduct in public. Research has established that people who are responsible for managing places—whether malls, businesses, apartment buildings, commercial districts, or parks—can collectively act to enforce rules and standards of orderly behavior that result in reduced disorder.31

Police can notify people, in person or in writing, about individuals causing problems. Officers in Manchester, England, distributed a leaflet to parents explaining the problems, police responses, parental responsibilities, and potential consequences for failing to control their children's behavior (including sanctions against their public housing privileges).32 Police in Lancashire, England, videotaped disorderly youth and showed the videotapes to their parents.33 Many jurisdictions have parental responsibility laws, with sanctions against parents who fail to exercise reasonable control of their children's conduct; however, these laws are rarely enforced.

10. Establishing clear rules of conduct, and educating youth about them. Patrol officers usually develop their own personal standards for youth conduct, which they pass on to the youth by word or action. Unfortunately, the same youth are subject to many different patrol officers' standards. When the standards change depending on which officer is on duty, youth perceive the standards to be arbitrary and, therefore, unfair.34 You should try to get officers to agree on a reasonably consistent set of standards for dealing with congregating youth.

Shopping mall managers should establish a clear set of rules of conduct and post them where youth congregate. Some merchants impose minimum-purchase requirements or restrict restroom use to paying customers to discourage youth from gathering outside their businesses. Some malls have resorted to requiring teenagers to have parental escorts during certain hours.

Some Dutch police visit schools at the beginning of the school year to inform students about rules of conduct that will apply in places where students are known to hang out.35 Lancashire police instituted a juvenile nuisance register to log police officers' warnings to young people and justify harsher responses if the youth ignore the warnings.36

Clearly posted rules in shopping malls are recommended to discourage disorderly conduct. Credit: Michael Scott

11. Mediating conflicts between youth and complainants.As noted earlier, young people often fail to appreciate their behavior's effect on others. Bringing youth and complainants together can result in a healthy exchange of perspectives. In some instances, complainants have been known to become more sympathetic to the lack of opportunities for youth, and willing to help provide them.37 If there is racial or ethnic bias to the complaints, you might consider providing professional cultural awareness training for complainants and youth.38

12. Denying youths' anonymity.In some instances, simply getting to know the names and faces of young people, thereby removing their sense of anonymity, is sufficient to discourage them from causing trouble.39 Without being antagonistic or accusatory, police and private security officers can make special efforts to let youth know they can readily be identified. In some instances, police and private security have resorted to photographing and identifying youth who create disturbances, either as part of an official trespass warning system, or merely to put the troublemakers on notice that their conduct is being monitored.40 If you adopt this response, you should make certain you adhere to applicable laws and policies regarding photographing juveniles.

13. Deploying police paraprofessionals to patrol public places where youth congregate.Police in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom hire and assign uniformed paraprofessionals—variously called wardens, special constables or patrollers—to patrol public places where youth often congregate.41 Evaluations of these paraprofessionals' effectiveness have shown some reductions in citizen fear and complaints about youth disorder in the areas patrolled,42 but at least in the United Kingdom, the paraprofessionals were not well received by either the police or the general public.43 Their effectiveness appears to depend on their being reasonable and approachable rather than trying to be intimidating.44 Some police agencies have supported citizen patrols to help monitor young people's behavior in public.45

Private security officers constitute one type of paraprofessional, and while they tend to be dressed and equipped like police officers, some youth are more likely to challenge their authority and try to provoke confrontations if they resemble police.46 Police might provide training to private security in handling youth in public places.47

14. Enforcing truancy laws.Truancy enforcement can be effective in reducing youth disorder occurring during school hours.48 Police can educate complainants about truancy laws so that they know when and how to notify authorities about truancy violations. However, truancy enforcement, while an increasingly popular idea, is not necessarily an appropriate response to your particular disorderly youth problem.† For it to be effective, school officials and other juvenile authorities must cooperate with police and develop practices and programs that prevent truancy, while addressing underlying problems that might cause habitual truancy. Police agencies should establish specific policies and procedures for truancy enforcement rather than rely on occasional and highly discretionary enforcement.

† There is a considerable body of literature on truancy and the police role in addressing it that you may want to consult if you use truancy enforcement as a response to disorderly youth problems.

15. Enforcing curfew laws.Curfew laws are intended to keep youth off the streets at night, so that they are more likely to be under adult supervision at home. Some jurisdictions, such as Orlando, Fla., have imposed curfews on juveniles only in the downtown entertainment districts, where problems have been concentrated. Whether curfew enforcement is effective at reducing youth disorder depends on particular local conditions.49 In many jurisdictions, youth are more likely to cause trouble after school than at night.50

Proposals to enact or enforce juvenile curfews almost always inspire community debate.†The general public and, presumably, young people themselves are more likely to accept curfews if alternative legitimate activities and places for youth to gather exist.51 If police are expected to enforce juvenile curfews, there must be convenient holding facilities that allow officers to return to the streets quickly; otherwise, they are not likely to take juveniles into custody. As with truancy enforcement, police agencies that opt to enforce curfew laws should establish specific policies and procedures relating to enforcement.

† See O'Brien and Joseph (1999) for a discussion of the pros and cons of juvenile curfews.

16. Banning troublemakers from private property.If youth are congregating and creating disturbances on privately owned property, such as business parking lots or apartment complexes, you might consider securing authority from the property owners for the police to enforce trespass laws.

Trespass enforcement was one of a combination of responses St. Petersburg, Florida, police used to reduce problems caused by students' gathering in a convenience store parking lot. Stricter truancy enforcement by school officials and the turning off of video games in the convenience store during school hours were the other key responses.52 Newport News, Virginia, police also used trespass enforcement to deal with disorderly youth at a shopping plaza, and encouraged judges to order convicted offenders to stay away from the plaza as a condition of a suspended sentence.53

Shopping malls are generally considered private rather than public places, giving mall owners and managers greater legal authority to deny access to the premises, but in many jurisdictions, they are considered quasi-public. You should consult with legal counsel in deciding how the police can properly support this response.‡ Police agencies should establish specific policy guidelines that cover police officers authority and responsibilities in helping mall authorities enforce the bans. You must take special care not to support arbitrary or discriminatory banning practices. Identities of banned youth should be provided to merchants and security staff.

‡ American courts recognize the quasi-public nature of shopping malls and have extended certain constitutional guarantees, especially those relating to free speech and assembly, to those visiting malls. The extent to which a mall is considered public or private depends in part on whether there are any public rightsof-way on the mall grounds. Malls with public transportation links, government offices or police substations on the premises are more likely to be deemed quasi-public, thereby limiting mall owners' right to exclude certain people.

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

17. Increasing patrol by uniformed police officers. Merely increasing uniformed police officers' presence around locations where youth gather is expensive, inefficient and usually ineffective.

18. Strictly enforcing laws against youth.Many police officers are hesitant to rely excessively on arrest as a means of controlling troublesome youth behavior. Where juvenile justice system sanctions are lenient, as they often are for minor offenses, officers prefer not to expose youth to that leniency, hoping that they will believe the sanctions to be serious.54 It may be necessary for you to strictly enforce some laws, at least for a while, just to convince youth that the option is available. Done properly, some enforcement can open lines of communication between you and young people who might question your authority to act.55
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