I remember when I was in the 3rd grade, “Officer Friendly” came to our classroom. He was a tall White man wearing a uniform and hat. Talk about exciting! We “ohh’ed and ahh’ed” because we were awestruck with his uniform, shiny badge, gun, and of course – the coloring book! He was polite and indeed friendly and we felt secure with him in our classroom. I got to shake his hand and I never forgot the encounter—I couldn’t wait to tell my parents about it. I remember adding police officer to the list of things I wanted to be because of that visit–he caught bad guys and kept people safe after all so, how cool is that! Fast forward to 2016. Officer Friendly no longer exists. In his place is extreme distrust, dead bodies, and unending news bites. Gone are the days of yesteryear…
I recently came across a post (meme) on a social media page sponsored by the Chicago Police Department. It asked parents “please stop telling your children that we will haul them off to jail if they are bad. We want them to run to us if they are scared… Not be scared of us. Thank you.” I agree with that statement. They are, after all, paid to serve and protect the public and the last thing we need is for our children to be afraid of them if they should ever need them. We absolutely don’t want parents scaring a child into discipline and submission (that is abusive). But that request raises a more serious question. The question is… How do we raise Black and Brown children to have a healthy “relationship” with law enforcement? How do we teach them to trust and then protect themselves against them should the time present itself?
It’s a burning question because I remember teaching my son that police are “friendly and they help people.” I taught him to respect the police, go to them if he ever needs help, and call them if he sees someone else in trouble. He believed me– at first. That wide-eyed, trusting face believed what mommy said about the helpful police. Then he grew older and you wouldn’t believe the disagreements we used to have when he became a teen! He started calling them “pigs” and said he hated them. Hate is a strong word and I was appalled because this is the opposite of what I’d taught him. I asked him why he felt that way and he said all they do is stop and harass him and other people. Of course, trying to be helpful (and parental), I thought I had an answer for every scenario—including “they only harass people who are making trouble. So, stay away from trouble.” It seemed simple enough to me. Eventually, I realized that he simply didn’t trust or respect any form of law enforcement –and sadly, with good reason.
Police have never been popular but there was still a somewhat respectful ‘truce’ between them and black residents in the mid-70s and early 80s. Then the War on Drugs began to heat up and there was a total shift in the way blacks were being treated. Incarcerations and jail overcrowding increased as did the construction of private prisons. I remember the stories about inmates sleeping on jail floors because the cells were so packed. As this ‘war’ evolved, it became evident who the real ‘enemy’ was – the black and brown people. It didn’t matter whether they were behind the wheel of a car or on foot. They were stopped – and stopped often. Then the brutality increased. Had it not been for the advent of the cellular phone, no one would’ve believed the level of brutality Rodney King suffered during a beating in 1991. Nor would we have witnessed the recent horror of Laquan McDonald being shot 16 times- most of which occurred while he was lying in the street dying. Officer Friendly, indeed.
Two years ago, my son was on his way home and as he crossed the street at 63rd and Cottage Grove, an unmarked car stopped him (for ‘jaywalking’ at 2am). He politely asked them why they detained him and they put him in the car. He then became angry and demanded to know why they stopped him. He was told to shut up before they dropped him off in an area that was notorious for shooting strangers. Then, one of them told him they were about to ‘inconvenience’ his weekend. They took him to a lockup downtown. The following morning, without a word or paperwork, he was released and told to pick up his property at a station in Maywood. Not finding his items there, he asked me for a ride to another police station. That particular day, he, my nephew and I drove to 4 stations (2 of them twice) –crisscrossing the city– until we were able to retrieve his wallet and backpack (which was in Maywood). His cell phone and belt, however, were gone. We filed a complaint. My son eventually gave up on the follow up process (which was disappointing to me) so there was no positive outcome. He simply wanted no more encounters with them. Honestly, I didn’t blame him. No crime was committed by him. He wasn’t even ‘arrested’. Just inconvenienced– along with my nephew and I. Officer Friendly, indeed.
How do we teach our children to safely interact with law enforcement when their first priority appears to be harassment and humiliation of its Black citizens? How does one navigate what can easily escalate into a life-threatening encounter when there is overwhelming proof they may not even survive it? Parents used to dread having “the talk” with their children about sex. Now we have to teach them that the friendly and helpful policeman (we taught them to obey) might not only haul them off to jail after all, but could possibly maim or kill them and because of that, there’s a whole set of rules they have to follow should they ever become detained by one. Similar to ‘stop, drop, and roll’ during a fire, we have to teach them to ‘shut up‘(to avoid escalation), ‘hands up’ (to avoid being shot), and ‘curl up’ (if punched or kicked). Not only that, we have to determine at what age to teach them. Sadly, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Laquan McDonald are only a few who’ve lost their lives during what should’ve been a routine interaction with an officer. What do we teach them to counteract the very real and violent imagery of the news showing clips of police beating and shooting people? Officer Friendly, indeed.
Black and Brown people on average are detained, arrested, brutalized, and killed (in the street or while in custody) at higher rates than White and others. They are the direct target of the ‘kindergarten to prison’ pipeline constructed during the War against Drugs. We don’t want our children to be frightened of law enforcement but the truth of the matter is, they need to be prepared and aware.
Slogans Displayed on Police Vehicles
- Portland: Sworn to protect: Dedicated to Serve
- Chicago: We Serve and Protect
- New York: Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect
- Ferguson: No motto displayed
Two days ago. A relative called to tell me that an officer just moments ago had stopped and handcuffed him at a bus terminal in Harvey, IL. He was smoking (not illegal). The officer attempted to “push his buttons” verbally to escalate the situation but the young man, to his credit, was not moved. Eventually he was released and advised “I don’t want to see you here for the rest of the week.” He was on his way to pick up a prescription. While on the bus, he also discovered money was missing from his wallet. He’s not a criminal. Nor is he a gang-banger, drug dealer, or a thug. Just a man running errands. He was illegally told not to come back to a public place (a bus stop). Officer Friendly, indeed.
Make no mistake, I am not anti-police but rather pro-life. All I can offer are events that I’ve witnessed for myself as well as what we have seen in the news and all around us. There is a serious problem that runs deep within any individual that decides for his (or her) self, that Blacks are less than human and should be treated as such. There’s a problem when officers have no true accountability for their actions. It spreads like a cancer and needs to be addressed by our mayors, Superintendents, and the Department of Justice. We must continue to fight until we find a way to bridge the chasm between black human beings and the people who abuse the power of their uniform. Until then, we must teach our children to be wary because while police will help them, there may come a time when that helping hand becomes a boot in the back.