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Conflicts between officer training and the children they are policing.

Policing youth with mental health issues is a growing problem.  This article sheds light on solutions to this intractable core community issue.

From a law enforcement perspective, police officers are at significant risk for injury and even death.  More so during recent years.

Demands on law enforcement are increasing, resources are diminishing and public support for police practices is eroding.

The COVID pandemic is creating more damaged youth as children are locked into toxic homes without access to teachers, social workers or other mandated reporters.  We don’t see this because there is little institutional reporting and far less reporting from a media engulfed in COVID and politics.

Online interviews of abused children on a laptop with the abuser in the room are not the same thing as a child confiding in a trusted adult away from the abuser in a safe environment.

Children traumatized by abuse develop behavioral problems that become law enforcement problems.  Most violent and serious crime in America is committed by juveniles. Most felons were juvenile offenders. This cycle is growing much faster because of COVID.

Pre COVID, 37% of America’s 80 million children were being reported to child protection agencies by their 18th birthday.

Now, COVID induced stresses piled onto poor and at-risk families are increasing both the incidents and severity of domestic violence.  This is creating many more traumatized children which will become a much bigger problem for law enforcement, schools and neighborhoods.

We know that the pandemic pressures of job loss, mental health and increased substance abuse are leaving more children in the hands of over stressed, dysfunctional and often violent caregivers. Note, watching your mother beaten or raped can create as much trauma for a child as being beaten or raped.

Since child abuse and trauma is unseen and without immediate consequences, it stays on the back burner while cops handle the more “urgent” matters.

Let’s not confuse “urgent” with “important”. Steven Covey distinguishes the two in his book “First Things First”

  • Nearly 25% of fatal police shootings are mentally ill victims
  • 40% of people with serious mental ill problems will come into contact with the criminal justice system (2 million of them are booked into jails now)
  • 115 police officers have been killed by people with untreated mental illness in the last seven years


Putting more attention on at risk children helps interrupt serious child abuse and minimizes future dysfunctional behaviors and criminal justice involvement.

A growing number of sheriffs and chiefs are speaking out about policing community social ills and mental health with centuries old harsh policing models are becoming more common.

Decades ago, a MN Police Chief in a mid-sized city of (over 10,000) confided in me that he would be removed from his job if he were to repeat to the city council what he had just said about the core issues his officers were dealing with every day.

He knew de-escalation tactics were more effective than the harsh methods the force was trained in.

He knew the police culture that came with current training.

Since then, my city and many others are experiencing growing dissatisfaction with the racial disparity and methods and outcomes of law enforcement practices.

The current approach to policing at risk youth is creating exactly what we don’t want – more dysfunctional behavior and more felons. 

Nine-year prison recidivism is reaching 90%. California’s Surgeon General  and the ACEs medical studies have made it clear that child abuse and the mental health traumas that come with it drive behaviors that fill classrooms with broken children and prisons with broken adults.

Policing a larger number of more damaged youth projects a harsh picture of what policing will look like post COVID.

Officer mental health will continue to be impacted by the secondary traumas of growing encounters of more violent youth (cop hating and suicide by cop is a real threat within this population).

Communities will continue to demand better results and internal change. The ACES studies have shown that replacing a punishment model with a trauma informed public health model improves outcomes.

Even partial success in ending the current model will give results that save officers from future harm and communities from behaviors requiring more jails and prisons and growing recidivism rates.

It will also go a long way in restoring school performance, community trust and officer morale.

The choice we are facing is imminent.  There is a tipping point that we cannot see, and it is too serious to ignore.




  • Children living in toxic homes experience brain function change from a reasoned response (from the frontal cortex) to a reptilian response (from the amygdala).

These children when facing out of the home authority (especially uniformed officers) often have a reptilian reaction – responses hardwired from repeated abuse.

That’s why a nine-year-old spits in your face or bites you as you hand her a hamburger.

Outrageous behaviors aren’t developed in a vacuum.  They are cultivated in toxic homes where children suffer daily terror and traumas.

We have long known what trauma does to soldiers – but few of us understand the lifelong consequences of childhood trauma.

Because traumatized children live with extreme anxiety almost constantly, they seldom develop a healthy executive brain function to interpret and understand what others see clearly.

Policing children with compromised brain function don’t have the coping skills or mental resources required to avoid more confrontation, danger to himself, other or the officer called upon to provide safety to the community.

Change will not arrive on its own.  Without broader support from the community, its law enforcement officers and administration, positive change is unlikely.  Because of the dysfunction caused by COVID, we can expect this generation of at-risk youth to deliver more dangerous behavior in school and to the community.  How we manage that behavior will determine what our communities will look like over the next decades.


  • For everyone involved, finding an effective balance point for policing troubled youth makes us all safer.

Reducing future harm for police, teachers, families and their children needs a mix of de-escalation, human services and enforcement.

Teachers, social and health workers are embracing de-escalation and healing models with positive results.

Fewer disrupted classrooms and beat up teachers and medical workers are a growing reality in many communities.

Crisis intervention, mediation, and mental health services are best provided by people experienced in these fields.

Advocating for troubled youth is hard when they treat you so badly – but it will help in the long run and make us all allot safer in the years to come.


Footnote.  The World Health Organization defines torture as “Extended exposure to violence and deprivation”.  Of the fifty children I’ve helped to remove from toxic homes as a CASA guardian ad litem, all of them suffered multiple years of traumatizing violence and deprivation.

My kids had very limited coping skills.  Many struggled with language, reading, social interaction.

Many did not graduate from high school.

Almost all felt self-hate as if they had caused the abuse that happened to them – they felt perceived as different and often as “freaks” in school

Fear and hate of authority figures was common and violence, crime, self-harm and suicide attempts were frequent.

Nationally, 80% of youth aging out of foster care lead dysfunctional lives.

Responses triggered by a hyperactive *amygdala wreak havoc for many of my kids.  They hit people, spit, swear and draw from a litany of terrible behaviors directed at those of us who lean on them to “behave”. It’s automatic, unthinking, reptilian behavior that hurts them and everyone around them


  • *Simply ending the punishment model for abused and neglected children is a first step.
  • *Hospitals with mental health wards are developing effective healing and de-escalation models of dealing with troubled sometimes violent patients.
  • *Social workers spend their working lives de-escalating violence and irrational behaviors of troubled State Ward children.
  • *Educators are adding counsellors to provide mental health services to troubled students instead of expelling them.
  • *A growing number of police and sheriff’s departments are reaching out to social and mental health workers to collaborate and replace themselves in schools.

The answers are in front of us.  What will we do?

How does your department face these facts?

Mike Tikkanen is the founder of the nonprofit Kids At Risk Action

KARA advocates for the people, policies and programs that improve the lives of abused and neglected children.

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