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Back to Archives | Back to June 2004 Contents 

Reducing Juvenile Violence through Prevention, Intervention, and Law Enforcement Practices

By R. Rita Dorsey, Ph.D., Executive Commander for Community Policing and Executive Director of the Juvenile Violence Abatement Project, Division of Police Services, Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis's Motto
We build children to thrive and survive by teaching life-affirming principles, and we do it one child at a time, one community at a time.

Teaching Class Photo
Photographs courtesy Memphis Police Department
Children are especially vulnerable to violence and its consequences. In Memphis, Tennessee, after a stray bullet struck and killed a three-year-old girl in 2002, city leaders and residents renewed their commitment to help police reduce violence, especially violence by and against juveniles.

Under the direction of city leaders, the Memphis Police Department began consolidating its antiviolence programs for youth under the oversight of the Juvenile Violence Abatement Project (JVAP). The project takes advantage of the agency's community policing resources and enlists the help of parents, schools, and community organizations of all types to reach and teach local youth. JVAP's approach to youth violence comprises three components:

Prevention. This component addresses youth violence by attempting to repress delinquency before youth have an opportunity to commit illegal acts or advance to more serious offenses. The program addresses known risk factors for crime, violence, and substance abuse.

    Intervention. This component addresses youth who have already been in contact with the justice system. It is designed to give them information and skills to prepare them to function appropriately in society.

    Law enforcement. The last component of law enforcement relies on proven practices designed to discipline and hold accountable those youth who persist in exhibiting unacceptable behavior.

Community Action Units
Commissioned police officers direct the work of the program through the Community Action Units, known as CoActs, in 15 substations across Memphis. Officers in each CoAct work with schools, parents, and others in that part of the city to create, develop, and implement outreach programs for youth that can be measured and replicated as needed.

In the Memphis Police Department's Westwood CoAct, for instance, officers and other partners offer middle-school students opportunities for mentoring and positive leisure activities. The unit sustains three youth mentoring programs: Lot (Leaders of Tomorrow), Step (Striving toward Excellence and Promoting Education Program), and Girls (Guidance, Involvement, Responsibility, Leadership, Success). These programs have been around for several years; but under JVAP their capacity has grown, especially in evaluation. In 2003 nearly 100 students participated in the three programs in Westwood.

The overall goal of the various programs is to decrease the numbers of youth violence and criminal acts by actively involving neighborhood youth in positive activities, mentoring, crime prevention and awareness, and positive educational and leisure activities. The youth are therefore provided with special programming which enhances personal growth and promotes future self-sufficiency. Youth are continually encouraged to become involved in their communities and to make good choices in life.

Teaching class photo
Photographs courtesy Memphis Police Department
Student program participants meet twice a month in hour-long group sessions during the school year. Police officers and parent volunteers lead the sessions and monitor student participants for academic performance, grade promotion or retention (pass or fail), and program participation. They periodically review report cards and continuously encourage students to do their academic best and to maintain at least a C average in their studies. In 2003 more than 80 percent of all participants in these programs were promoted to the next grade level.

Students who maintained average grades of C or better with satisfactory conduct grades and who actively participated in the different programs are allowed to join their peers on an end-of-the-school-year field trip. Last year the destination was Washington, D.C. The field trip serves as a reward for students who successfully completed program goals. Students who did not pass or failed in a particular subject area were provided with tutoring opportunities and were encouraged to attend summer school. Police officers maintained contact with these students during the summer months and provided necessary follow-up and personal encouragement.

Students were also surveyed to determine their opinions about the activities they had engaged in over the school year. The survey instrument revealed that they were satisfied with whichever of the three programs they participated in; in fact, more than 90 percent of the program participants stated that the program was important and beneficial to them. When asked about their favorite aspect of the program, some of the students had this to say:

  • "Officers seemed to care."
  • "Cool police."
  • "Talked about important things."
  • "Field trips."

Citywide Initiatives
Along with the Westwood CoAct program activities, many other initiatives are under way all over the city, doing their part to help police prevent juvenile violence, intervene in the lives of kids headed for trouble, and enforce antiviolence violence laws.

    Teen Listen Line: Beginning operations in December 2002, the teen listen line features a staff of trained call takers who listen to the problems of young callers (and parents) and provide appropriate referrals to local agencies that can provide direct services if needed.

    Truancy Sweeps: Periodic truancy sweeps are conducted by CoAct officers as a result of a partnership developed with the Memphis Board of Education to reduce the number of truant students. Research has indicated that truancy has been clearly identified as one of the early warning signs of students headed for potential delinquent activity, social isolation, or educational failure by way of suspension, expulsion, or dropping out.

    Juvenile Police Academy: The Memphis Police Department has instituted a juvenile police academy that has been patterned after the citizen police academies conducted in several large cities. Middle-school students are selected to participate in a nine-week training program that teaches them about law enforcement and heightens their sense of civic pride and responsibility. The juvenile police academy curriculum includes such topics as department organization, structure and history, juvenile issues, home safety, domestic violence, school truancy, and other topics germane to youth and their exposure to local law enforcement. Graduates of the program are dubbed youth ambassadors for the Memphis Police Department. These young ambassadors engage in civic-oriented activities designed to expose the youth to the concepts of integrity, decency, respect, and personal responsibility. The children participate in workshops such as How to Be a Responsible Young Citizen; volunteer at local senior citizen homes; and learn how to report on gang graffiti, gang activity, or other undesirable conditions in their neighborhood.

Teaching Class Photo
Photographs courtesy Memphis Police Department
Reducing Violence
In order to reduce the amount of violence experienced by Memphis youth, JVAP is poised to tackle many issues facing both children and parents. Antidrug, antiviolence and antibullying presentations are made in local middle and elementary schools each week. Training sessions on gang awareness and identification are held for parents of delinquent and nondelinquent children. Intervention presentations are made at alternative schools, juvenile courts, and other juvenile correctional facilities.

Partnerships have been forged with local faith-based and community service organizations. In-house expertise and resources are available to enhance existing youth programs. Certain staff provide professional growth and development training to youth service providers. Annual, large-scale antiviolence and anticrime events are held throughout the city.

The project's activities are based on criminological theories related to prevention and intervention strategies for youth as presented by criminal justice scholars. These researchers contend that for prevention to be effective, it must address known risk factors for crime, violence, and substance abuse. JVAP aims to address these factors as they are identified in the groups it serves.

In addition, the project employs social development strategies as a prevention approach for reducing identified risk factors by enhancing known protective factors. Such factors have been derived from major criminological theories, including social learning theory, differential association, and social control theory. Such strategies specify how protective factors can be introduced to help protect children exposed to the many risks of their environment.

The goals and mission of the Memphis Juvenile Violence Abatement Project are grounded in best practices, criminological theories, and a firm commitment from the city and the police department. It is the project's overriding goal to reduce the amount of violence experienced by Memphis youth through innovative, responsive, and effective methods of outreach. Memphis's motto is, "We build children to thrive and survive by teaching life-affirming principles, and we do it one child at a time, one community at a time."



From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 6, June 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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