A juvenile's first encounter with the legal system is often with a police officer. For this reason juvenile police officers are specially trained to enforce the law while trying to get help for the underage offender. The officers are expected to be part social worker, administrator and crime fighter. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention notes that, in 2008, police arrested more than 2 million children under 18 years of age.
Juvenile police officers are part of the juvenile justice system, created to deal with the problems of delinquency. It is similar to the adult justice system. However, the juvenile system focuses on the rehabilitation and treatment of underage offenders, not just punishment. For this reason juvenile police officers are given discretion to determine if the juvenile should be referred to a social worker or family court instead of being detained.
Juvenile police officers patrol areas of the community where juveniles are likely to hang out, such as parks, recreation centers and shopping malls. Besides preventing petty offenses, the officers also look for juveniles wanted for probation violations or violent crimes. The officers may also be posted at schools to keep the campus safe, monitor any gang-related activity or apprehend drug users or trespassers.
Officers are often required to arrest or detain juveniles, depending on the seriousness of the incident. Kären M. Hess and Christine Hess Orthmann in "Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice" state that the officer must also take into account other factors, such the offender's age, previous crimes and family situation. At this point, the officer must decide if she should refer the offender to another agency, a social worker or family court.
Juvenile police officers must investigate a wide range of offenses, from tracking down runaways to finding children who have skipped school. The officers may also have to investigate serious crimes committed against children. These can include sexual abuse, assault or kidnapping. Increasingly, juvenile officers are also required to be tech savvy to investigate allegations of cyberbullying, Internet stalking or to track down and arrest pedophiles.
Officers also assist with outreach programs to help prevent crime. For example, officers may go to schools to deliver addresses on themes such as avoiding drug use and staying out of gangs. They also administer volunteer programs to get juveniles involved in their communities. The International Association of Police Chiefs notes that these programs can include recreational activities, internships and law enforcement scout explorer groups.