When I was a teen I fought viciously with my sister, hung out in places I should not have been, and walked the streets with my friends. A white girl growing up in a working-class neighborhood where kids were allowed to be kids, I was never stopped, arrested or prosecuted for any of these things. I certainly was not pushed around by police, Tased with stun guns, or bitten by police dogs.
And despite being raised in a household that struggled under economic and other hardships, I became the first in my family to earn a university degree. Further guided by mentors and supportive adults who helped me along the way, I went on to law school. Today, against many odds, I am a law professor in St. Louis, where I run a law clinic that provides free legal services to community youth.
But I can tell you that the experiences of the kids we serve are a far cry from my own.
In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice did just that — although most would not know it from recent news accounts.
This month, the press has widely covered DOJ’s investigation of Ferguson government: how systemic practices of both law enforcement and judicial officials ignore constitutional standards, punish poverty and inhumanely discriminate against black residents — all with a view toward financial gain.
Headlines have been silent, however, about one particularly powerful message in the DOJ’s report — and as a result have overlooked one particularly impacted and vulnerable population: the children of the St. Louis region.
Page one of DOJ’s report cites 42 U.S.C. 14141 as one source of its legal authority — under which it has threatened lawsuit if things don’t change. This statute protects the constitutional rights of juveniles.
From there the report recounts in horrific detail the life-altering injustices suffered by children in Ferguson — many guilty of doing nothing more than I did when I was a teenager.
It describes how Ferguson police officers in school halls respond to youthful indiscretions like fights and back-talking with force frequently followed by arrest and formal prosecution. In one especially hair-raising account, where a 14-year-old middle schooler got into an argument with a classmate, Ferguson police intervened to Tase the youth with a stun gun — sending shocking electrical current into the child’s body. Then the child faced removal from school for 180 days.
DOJ also documented 14 instances of police dogs deployed to attack citizens. In each, the suspect was black. In at least two they were just children. One of these involved police unleashing a dog on a 14-year-old child hanging out in an abandoned building, because, according to the officer, he would not show his hands.
Officers also use the municipality’s expansive — and largely unconstitutional — ordinance code to rack up cases, fines and fees for the locality. For instance, DOJ documented countless instances of charges like “gathering in a group for purposes of committing illegal activity” or “manner of walking in the street” being used against young people for the most ordinary adolescent behaviors.
Similarly, it uncovered local “ped check” practices used against youth of color. Frequently these warrantless stops led to prosecution for the charge of “failure to comply” for not providing identification or answering police questions, even though the Constitution largely protects such silence.
If as a child I had to endure daily traumas at the hands of the government officials, including threats of stops, arrests, stun guns and dog attacks — I can’t imagine retaining my focus on the future. And I surely would not have developed the same faith in our systems of justice that led me to fight so hard to become a lawyer.
Instead of helpful mentors to guide me I was met with school suspension, court fines and arrest warrants for childish activity — warrants that would have prevented me from getting my first job or first apartment — I may have given up on getting ahead.
Factor into the odds the many other layers of structural inequality suffered by youth of color in this country, I am fairly certain I would not be where I am today.
The DOJ’s report is titled “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” But it calls for us to change far more than Ferguson. We should use this as an opportunity to interrogate our own lives — to acknowledge the ways in which so many of us have enjoyed invisible privilege, including something as basic as the right to childhood.
From there we must demand just, fair and compassionate treatment for all youth. Because as the DOJ’s report so powerfully demonstrates, too many kids of color — unnoticed by this week’s news about Ferguson and beyond — are robbed of their innocence by inhumane police practices and handed reduced life chances simply because of the color of their skin.
Mae C. Quinn is a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis, where she runs the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic. She grew up in Staten Island, N.Y.
This essay was originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.