At what age can you be charged with a crime in Texas?
The question appears on a screen in front of a group of teenagers at the Boys and Girls Club in Northeast Austin on a recent Tuesday. Half the room is deliberating as a timer slowly ticks down.
There are four options:
B: 8, but only if it is a really serious offense
C: Any age
The buzzer goes off and the kids scramble to make a decision.
“B!” they all yell in a hurry.
The correct answer was A: 10 years old. Their team just lost a hundred points.
A New Version Of An Iconic Game
The group is playing a game called Juvenile Justice Jeopardy, created by the Boston-based organization Strategies for Youth. The Austin Police Department and the Police Activities League, or PAL, partnered with the organization in 2015 to bring the game to the Austin-area. The goal is to teach young people the do’s and don’ts of the criminal justice system.
“[That way] interactions proceed more safely, more calmly and everybody is interacting in a way that ensures better outcomes,” said Lisa Thurau, CEO of Strategies for Youth.
Thurau says her organization trains law enforcement on best practices for policing young people. But Juvenile Justice Jeopardy is a way to bring the conversation to kids and make sure they also understand how to navigate these types of situations.
The game is currently being played in 19 states and is customized to local laws. But this Jeopardy-inspired game is a little different from the original. To make it easier for the kids, they are given multiple choice questions.
Thurau says her research shows a large majority of the kids who play this game across the country say they didn’t know how to answer 50-75% of the questions.
“Another 10% said 100% of the information was new to them,” she said.
For Thurau, this suggests the game is working. It’s that spoonful of sugar – a way to help young people digest some of life’s harsh realities.
“Kids respond very much to storytelling,” she said. “Imagining themselves in the shoes of someone. Understanding what to do, as opposed to being told all the time what not to do.”
The game includes roleplaying as well. That day at the Boys and Girls Club, Thurau had two young men pretend to be police officers, while she pretended to be a 15-year-old girl out past curfew. When the young men approached her, she lashed out and started berating the officers. After plenty of laughter, the kids were asked to point out what she did wrong.
"You touched him, you mocked him and you were all up in their face," one student says.
The roles were then reversed: she asked two real APD officers to approach her aggressively. This time around, she stayed calm and quietly answered questions in order to show the right way to respond.
More Positive Encounters
Thurau came to Austin as part of a pilot program to teach a group of Austin-area police officers how to play the game so they can bring it to their own respective communities. She was invited by APD Officer Jeremy Bohannon, a member of Austin PAL. He spends much of his time trying to create more positive encounters between youth and police. Bohannon says he saw a lot of potential with the game and had been trying to get it here since he first learned about it over four years ago.
“I’ve always known that there was a lot that kids don’t know,” he said. “Usually the misunderstanding leads to fear, and that fear leads to them doing things and they don’t know any consequences.”
Bohannon says being able to lay out the consequences for young people is vital because it helps them understand the gravity of each decision – no matter how innocent it may seem.
For example, he says some young women won’t allow male officers to pat them down because they believe it's their right to have a female officer. He says this often leads to resistance, which can escalate situations.
During the game, Bohannon explains to the kids that if a female officer is not available, male officers are allowed to pat them down. He then demonstrates the right way to perform a pat down, making clear that all officers should be using the backs of their hands on private areas.
Bohannon says the workshop is more than just educational for the young people. It’s an opportunity to connect.
“We want to give as much information so that they understand, they understand us, and they understand that we actually do care about them,” he said.
Developing better relationships is one of the main objectives of Juvenile Justice Jeopardy, according to Thurau. Her research shows there’s been an increase in distrust and fear of law enforcement stemming back to 2014. That was when 18-year-old Michael Brown and 12-year-old Tamir Rice – both black and unarmed – were fatally shot by white police officers.
“Those two incidents, which have been followed, sadly, by some excessive and unreasonable use of force incidents,” Thurau says, “it demonstrates the need for law enforcement to adopt developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, racially equitable forms of policing youth."
Racial equity was an important piece of the conversation that day at the Boys and Girls Club because the majority of the 17- and 18-year-olds in the room were black, a group that is arrested and jailed at a much higher rate than their white counterparts.
The FBI says that in 2016, black Americans made up 26% of all people arrested in the U.S. – double their share of the population.
A similar disparity is seen locally. The City of Austin released a study in January that found black people made up 15% of drivers stopped by police, despite making up only around 8% of the city’s population.
This may help explain some of the moments when the tone of the Jeopardy game turned that day. At one point, Thurau started talking to the kids about how the media shows youth violence at a much higher rate than it actually happens.
“You have to understand that adults like me, and some of the other ones here, when they see young people coming, they see danger,” she told the students. “This is worse for kids of color. [Adults] perceive youth of color as much more dangerous and much more likely to be arrested for criminal involvement than they actually are.”
Most of the kids started pushing back, asking why.
“Is that the way you see us?” one student asked.
Thurau is white.
Sherwynn Patton, director of Life Anew Restorative Justice, an Austin-based organization that works to keep young people out of the criminal justice system, says this may be why the message was lost.
“We’re receiving information from people who can’t fully understand what it’s like to be a black man or black woman in America,” said Patton.
He says for this program to be effective, it can't just be a lesson about the legal system, because the current system disproportionately affects black and brown people. He says if law enforcement really wants to connect with these kids, they’ll need to commit to two things.
One is inviting people from the same communities they’re trying to help — people who know what it’s like to be singled out — to be a part of these conversations.
“They know exactly how it feels when someone makes a call that there is suspicious activity going on, but you’re doing the same thing as everyone else that’s in that area,” he said. “There is no way to describe how it feels when you’re having an interaction with law enforcement and you know that you haven’t done anything wrong.”
But Patton says the best way for police to show young people they care is to take the time to listen.
“I think that’s probably what most of black and brown America, people of color, are saying,” he said. “I want you to listen to me, understand me … because if you do, then maybe you’ll come alongside us, in order for us to make some real, meaningful, sustainable change.”
Build More Trust
At the end of the game, Thurau asked the students if this is a game their peers would find useful. Almost all of them said yes. She then called on one young man to explain why he thinks the information is valuable.
“I think everybody should know stuff like this because the police are always going to be around you, whether you like it or not,” the student said. “It’s best to know the consequences of your actions when you get them, that way you walk into every situation prepared. You want to know how cautious to be all the time.”
Bohannon says the plan is to train more officers on how to play this game in Austin and surrounding cities. The goal, he says, is to educate as many young people as possible – and to hopefully build more trust.
Got a tip? Email Nadia Hamdan at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @nadzhamz.
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