School of Criminal Justice Theses and Dissertations


Suspicion, Suspicion: Police Perceptions of Juveniles as the “Symbolic Assailant”

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – Department of Justice and Human Services

First Advisor

Tina Jaeckle

Second Advisor

Marcelo Castro

Third Advisor

Abigail Tucker


Jerome Skolnick’s (2011) "symbolic assailant" is a result of police attributing particular demeanor, gestures, language, and a style of dress to people they believed were most likely to commit violent crimes. The challenge became when police applied these characteristics to specific groups such as juveniles. Literature published before and after Skolnick (2011) indicated police were more likely to stop, arrest, interrogate, or surveille juveniles based on their demeanor, gestures, style of dress, lack of respect, deference to authority, the severity, and remorse for their offenses in addition to race. However, current research indicated race, gender, and Socioeconomic Status (SES) determined if police perceived juveniles as the symbolic assailant regardless of offense type. The current research also suggested the symbolic assailant is the foundation for related theories such as racial profiling and the “juvenile offender type-script.”

Thus, this dissertation sought to determine if juveniles’ demeanor, gestures, race, gender, and offense type predicted if police perceived them as having characteristics analogous to the symbolic assailant. The researcher conducted a nonexperimental predictive correlational research design analyzing secondary data from Connecticut’s Effective Police Interactions with Youth’s Pretest Survey. The results showed weak to moderate relationships between the predictor and criterion variables such as police believed juveniles’ fidgeting, pacing, and mouthing off as signs of guilt indicated a weak relationship. The strongest predictor was a combination of race and offense type as the patrol officers responded all races and ethnicities were most likely to carry weapons equally in the past 30 days, which differed from the current symbolic assailant and related literature.

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