I would hazard a guess that we all get a little sweaty in the pits when we see flashing lights in our rearview. It’s just our gut reaction to the possibility of getting a hefty ticket or maybe something worse, depending on the circumstances. As adults, we have so much to consider when encountering law enforcement, but children don’t have bills, vehicles, or homes. So, why are they having gut reactions to the sight of police lights or uniforms?
I call my step kids ‘bonus kids’. It took a while, but they have done wonderful jobs of accepting me in their lives, and they have learned to trust me with some of the goings on of their minds. In fact, some things just fall right out of their brains. While taking them to school one day, we passed a police officer who had a car pulled over, and the oldest, a 13-year old girl, blurted out, “I hate cops!” This simple statement was said with such venom that one would assume she has already had some kind of horrible experience with law enforcement that had left a bad scar on her heart. She hadn’t, of course. She is a high-achieving student who never lets herself slack in her school work, hardly ever has to be made to do her chores, and chooses to be respectful even if she’s mad as a hornet. Not once, in her young life, has she placed herself in a position to have anything to do with harsh disciplinary action.
When I asked her why she hated cops so much, she said it was because they [cops] are always just messing with people, and that they [cops] seem to only pull over or arrest black people. The best I could say in the moment was that part of the job of law enforcement was to interfere with any crime committed by people of any color, but I did understand if it seemed to her that black people suffered at the hands of the police more often than white people in her world. It did, however, feel important to point out the fact that from the moment a police officer leaves his home wearing his uniform, he has a target on his back. It is simply the nature of his job. Under that uniform, though, he’s just a guy who eats, sleeps, and lives a life just like the rest of us. Someone loves him. Someone wants him home safe. I suggested she try to look at him as just a man doing his job. It sounded like sound advice, but I didn’t know if it was clear enough for her particular brand of upbringing. She nodded, and I could tell that she understood what I meant, but there didn’t seem to be any real acceptance. I can’t say that I blame her.
Her mentality regarding law enforcement comes from the unfortunate circumstances of her having to go from our home to that of her mother on a regular basis…from a suburban conservative home to a liberal inner-city one. Because of the information our kids are exposed to on social media, it’s really hard for them to know what to believe. Throw in the concrete beliefs and passionate opinions of their parents, and these poor kids form their own version of what they think the truth is even if the words aren’t their own. Obviously, the opinions of her inner-city community have more weight because it looks like her and speaks her language, whereas the community surrounding our home is nothing like her. It makes sense that she would be confused and unconvinced by someone who does not live where she lives 50 percent of her time.
She needed a better answer…an answer that could meet her on her level and give her a real-world perspective. No matter what I thought of, it never seemed enough. So, when a police officer found himself in my workspace in a coffee shop, I didn’t hesitate to ask him the question that had plagued me ever since that interesting trip to school. After introductions and a little small talk, I asked him what he would like for our children to know about his life as a police officer in the current state of our nation. His response was so good.
He just wants our children to know that, outside of his choice to be a police officer, he lives a normal life. He breathes oxygen, cuts the grass and (I have to quote this) “picks up dog poop” like most other homeowners with a family and pets. He made no mention of the details of his job. He talked about himself as just a man in a uniform. He also mentioned that when his shifts are over, he just wants to go home. I imagine that he wishes everyone he had to pull over or arrest knew these things about him…that he is just a man who happens to work as a police officer. I say this because he freely acknowledged that an irresponsible driver or a suspect wants to be known as just a person as well…a person who made a bad (or even horrible) decision, but a person nonetheless. The empathy required to acknowledge something like that was refreshing coming from a person who, on sight, would strike fear in the heart of a 13-year old black honor student who has been taught to fear him.
Empathy is supposed to create new eyes that see people and their circumstances more clearly. These new eyes should be capable of looking beneath surfaces and seeking the whole picture. These new eyes are low in cost and only require caring enough to have conversations that matter…to listen for the purpose of understanding and manage our encounters with one another accordingly, even in the face of danger. The pay off is often much bigger. Seeing the faint smile on the face of my bonus kid while sharing this story was well worth what had to have been no more than a 5-minute conversation. I do not want her to be afraid, and if I can alleviate her fear in the slightest, I will do so. In fact, I will also do what I have to do to help her see the whole world…not just opinionated pieces of it.
That’s the twist here: the officer and the suspect both have families. They both want to be treated like human beings, regardless of which side of the line they are on. Somewhere in the clouds of blue cries for order and black cries for justice, we have lost sight of these facts.
Now, I do not know what kind of police officer this man is, but I do know his name. I also know that he loves coffee and hates picking up dog poop. In the interest of teaching a child how to really see people and have compassion, that’s a perfect place to start.