What Happens When Low-Income Mothers Call the Police

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What Happens When Low-Income Mothers Call the Police

"For mothers living in poverty, the stakes of choosing not to contact police when a child is truant, addicted, or out of control can be high," writes Monica Bell. (Photo: AP)

Amid the national discourse on policing, it is easy to lose sight of the day-to-day functions that police are expected to perform—the noise reduction, the carrying of groceries, the stopgap plumbing, the parenting support. But so much of their work is that mundane.

Shay,* mother of 17-year-old Lamar and a participant in my research with low-income African-American mothers in Washington, D.C., reminded me of this. A few months before I interviewed her, she had called the police to take her son away. “He looked at it like I had set him up because I had to get him to the house for them to get him,” Shay explained. “He was being a disrespectful child, talking back and being aggressive, not listening.”

Shay had grown increasingly alarmed by Lamar’s behavior in recent months. He was hanging out with friends who committed petty crime, and he had even gotten a few court summonses for minor offenses, appearances he usually skipped. Despite Shay’s distrust of police—a skepticism honed growing up in one of D.C.’s most violent housing projects—she reached out to them. She hoped they would link Lamar with resources he could use to avoid criminality, such as effective counseling and expanded educational and employment opportunities—resources she had not been able to provide.

Lamar wound up in a youth detention facility out of state. The statistics on long-term outcomes for teens who spend time in juvenile detention are not especially promising, but Shay insists that she made the best decision. “He knows now that mommy saved him,” she said.

The conventional wisdom is that poor African-Americans have nearly universal disdain for police, seeing them only as an occupying force. Yet research shows that African-American women living in high-poverty neighborhoods are part of groups most likely to report crime and disturbance to the police, even when researchers control for the higher crime rates they tend to experience. The key, though, is that when these women (especially mothers) call the police, they aren’t calling because they have faith in police officers’ crime-solving prowess or trust that police have their best interests at heart. They make the difficult choice to rely on police because they are one of the most readily available providers of social support—help that police are actually ill-equipped to furnish.

Of course, mothers are well aware that calling the police, especially on teenage sons, is risky. Those risks have gained national attention only recently, but nothing that Black Lives Matter activists brought to light is news to them.

Much to her chagrin, he’s now incarcerated instead.

Pam, another mother I interviewed, rattled off grievances against the police, including the shooting of an unarmed boy in a high-poverty, predominantly African-American neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C. some years ago. “There’s a lot of police brutality going on out there, a lot of crooked stuff. What can we do?” she lamented. Yet she reports calling the police on her drug-addicted son several times, hoping he could take advantage of a diversion program and get into drug treatment. Much to her chagrin, he’s now incarcerated instead.

For mothers living in poverty, the stakes of choosing not to contact police when a child is truant, addicted, or out of control can be high. Child welfare investigation is a regular occurrence for poor mothers, especially if they are African-American and living in central cities. Although calling the police can trigger a child welfare investigation, it can also serve as a gesture of diligent parenting. Thus the risk of reporting can seem worth taking to avoid the appearance of child neglect, a charge that could put the entire family in jeopardy.

Raising children is a tough task for anyone, particularly when those children are prone to misbehave. But when wealthier kids misbehave, their parents have better options for seeking help. They can redirect their children’s energy toward organized activities. They can find private counseling, or they attend schools where good counseling is more readily available. And, because child welfare agencies rarely investigate their homes or assume the worst about their parenting skills, they need not worry that one child’s misbehavior will threaten custody of all their children. When poor kids misbehave, these options are harder to come by. The social safety net, toilsome to access and often punitive in its own right, leaves mothers with few alternatives to the police department.

Against the backdrop of police bias and misconduct, police organizations have taken to publicizing dancing, jumping rope, and making music with children of color as if dance-offs will render forgettable the legacy of violence. These displays of goodwill are positive initial gestures. But long-term delivery of effective and respectful policing, coupled with a more robust and more usable landscape of non-criminal social services, is what’s really needed for violence reduction and police legitimacy. A dual strategy of police reform and safety net reform can ultimately aid in the fight against poverty by stemming the tide that inexorably pushes poor parents and kids toward penal entanglement, which tends to exacerbate hardship.

The social safety net, toilsome to access and often punitive in its own right, leaves mothers with few alternatives to the police.

This moment invites deeper questions about the functions and scope of police work. It beckons us toward reconsideration of how police regulation fits into a broader reform agenda. Body cameras and use of force standards are reasonable places to begin, but it will take more than police-specific reform to recast the work of police in communities. The Ferguson Commission, for example, integrated child well-being and economic opportunity into its agenda for change. Other proposals have suggested that multidisciplinary teams that include social workers respond to police calls, a helpful proposal even though it still operates in a crime control framework. Most towns and cities aiming to avoid becoming the next Ferguson, the next Baltimore, have turned their attention to police regulation, but they have not simultaneously sought ways to make social support more accessible in heavily policed communities beyond the criminal justice system.

As governments redefine the contours of policing, they can also tackle the deeper challenges of parenting in the toughest communities. They can make decisions like Shay’s and Pam’s less necessary.

*Name has been changed to protect confidentiality

Monica Bell

Monica Bell is a Research Associate at the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. An academic article on the research described herein is forthcoming in the Law & Society Review.

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