My Dear Readers:
It’s no secret that we live in troubled times. Police-themed television shows of years past such as Dragnet, CHiPs, S.W.A.T. and others portrayed police officers as a dedicated group of individuals committed to “protect and serve.” Back then, the police strongly held the public trust.
Today, we see a largely militarized police force. Their reaction to riots such as the one that occurred at the WHO conference in Seattle, and the aftermath of the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, MO and individual criminal acts like the rape in Oklahoma City and beatings of citizens across the country have beleaguered the police as an institution and as a result, many citizens view them with suspicion and distrust.
In 2002, the US Department of Justice published a survey of 80,000 Americans involved in police directed traffic stops. They found that:
- In general, 9% of White, 9% of Black and 9% of Latino drivers were stopped
- Black and Latino drivers were less likely to be issued a simple traffic warming from police and …
- Black and Latino drivers were more likely to be handcuffed and arrested.
Although in many cases the charges were dismissed, the “record of arrest” is NEVER erased, and therefore follows the individual to his death.
- Even though the charges may be dismissed, how does one “dismiss” the experience of public humiliation and the traumatic memories that may result?
When it comes to the safety of their children from being stopped, arrested and shot by the police, many of today’s African American parents live in fear.
Below is such a story…..
Dear Visible Man,
I am the mother of two African-American sons, ages 16 and 12. I am a faith-based person who has strong belief in my God, whom I accept as my savior.
In January 2015, my 12-year old son became upset after hearing about a story where an elderly black man was thrown against a police car and handcuffed by a white female officer here in Seattle.
The officer alleged that the elderly man had threatened her, but upon further investigation by the Seattle Police Department, it turns out that the police officer had falsified her actions and that the elderly man was innocent.
I am very much concerned with how these stories are impacting my son psychologically. Between this incident and the events in Ferguson, he is very fearful of the police.
He’s had nightmares of being shot by the police and being left out in the street uncovered. Now he has recurring dreams of being beaten by the police as he is walking along the street. Once, he woke up screaming hysterically and would not allow me to leave his side.
He said that in the dreams, I was crying over him. He is now very hesitant to leave without me. I have difficulty getting him to go to school. At night he sweats profusely and has on several occasions, wet the bed.
When we are in the car and he sees the police he becomes anxious, shakes, and slumps so he can’t be seen. My older son laughs at him, and calls him names, saying that he is weak. My older son says he isn’t afraid and nothing going to happen to him.
As they get older, they are becoming more involved in activities outside of my home. I’m not able to be with them all the time, but I still want to protect them. They are all good boys, but I worry most about my oldest, who can be mouthy when interacting with those in authority. Both of them are very tall for their ages and consequently can be mistaken for being young men instead of little boys.
I have spoken to our pastor, and he has prayed with me. I have prayed over my sons, placing holy oil on their foreheads, asking God to keep them safe. I just don’t believe this is enough to protect them. I live in fear that I could lose my children if the police should stop them.
I am scared. I have one defiant son and the other one is frightened to the point of being paranoid. Should I limit the information my 12-year is observing when it comes to media and the police? What do I tell my sons? How do I protect my sons?
Running Scared, Renton, WA
My Dear Madam,
I want to thank you for taking the time to openly share your concerns regarding the welfare and safety of your children. The concerns you have expressed are no doubt shared by countless parents throughout the country.
Indeed, numerous pastors of churches and leaders of faith-based organizations are speaking to their congregations and memberships about these issues. The question at the heart of these discussions is simple: what do we tell our sons?
Let’s begin by clarifying your concerns regarding your sons:
- The 16 year old is “mouthy” to adult authority. In addition, given the resulting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson he appears not be take the matter of safety seriously as it relates to interacting with the police. Furthermore, he has made demeaning and unsupportive comments regarding the actions of his younger sibling.
Given his age and level of maturity, he is within the middle phase of the developmental stage of adolescent behavior. Individuals within this phase tend to have the attitude of “living life large” without the concern or personal safety.
Children in this stage of development often have the perception that bad things happen to others and therefore minimize the impact of reality upon themselves. As a result, he has a carefree air and acts with bravado when he envisions his own interactions with police officers.
This combination of immaturity, the nature of the developmental phase and poor conceptualization of fear can be lethal. As an African-American male, this attitude can place your son at risk when he comes in contact with police officers.
- The 12-year-old has been very focused on the news media regarding the shooting of Michael Brown and now, the recent abusive treatment of the elderly male in Seattle. This has resulted in having an intense fear of the police. He has nightmares, anxious feelings and on occasion, bedwetting. He is reluctant to attend school and has increased anxiety when he is away from his parent.
Given his age and level of maturity, he appears to be within the early phase of adolescence. In repeatedly viewing this media coverage, your son has been over stimulated and negatively impacted, thus culminating in the responses of nightmares, anxious feelings and bedwetting.
Let’s clarify your concern as a parent:
- As the parent you are “running scare” You are fearful that the police will mistaken your sons for being older than their actual age. As your sons are getting older, they are being involved in more activities where you cannot control their actions or whereabouts. Your faith has seen you through difficult times, but you are not sure that it will see you through this one.
It is perceivable that the ongoing media coverage as well as talk within your faith based community has resulted in your own vicarious traumatization. You really are “living in fear.” Living in this fear has resulted in your own psychological disempowerment.
What do I tell my sons? How do I protect my sons?
First, I would like to clarify a point of concern. Fear is a normal human emotional response to a given situation. We must want to normalize the concept of fear, rather than demonize those who are wise and honest enough to acknowledge what is a very natural and human emotion that is exhibited with in all of us, regardless of gender. Simply put, fear as an emotion can be utilized to heighten our vigilance in a specific situation.
Second, it is my hope that in reading my response to your concerns that you will be able to transform from living in fear (running scared) to living with fear (achieving empowerment).
Third, you can normalize fear and begin the movement towards living with fear by equipping your sons with training on how to respond when interacting with police officers. Having such information will serve to empower them as individuals and help them work to be with their fear instead of in their fear.
As your sons are getting older and getting involved in activities outside the home, there is the possibility that they may be a driver or passenger in a vehicle. In the event of being followed by a police vehicle be aware: the officer may be:
- Running your license plates for possible warrants and infractions
- Observing the vehicle for malfunctions and defects
- Observing for suspicious behaviors
- Preparing for a possible stop and search of your personal space including your body and personal possessions
As your sons may be involved in community activities and find themselves being observed by a police officer be aware that the officer may be:
- Questioning whether they are “out of place” or not
- Scanning them for suspicious behavior
- Preparing for a possible stop and search of your personal space including your body and personal possessions
Teach your sons that the police are prepared to use deadly force (as in the incident of Michael Brown) or unnecessary physical force (should he or she feel physically threatened (as in the incident of the elderly male in Seattle)
- Understand that it is the officer’s perception of whether he or she is being physically threatened that counts the most.
Teach your sons that they are not helpless; they can be empowered by following these actions:
- Use their powers of observations and inform the police officer of their legal status as minors/juveniles
- Request that their parent or legal guardian be available prior to answering any questions
- Inform the officer of their intent to remain silent until they have legal representation-and then STOP TALKING
- Document the incident and any concerns regarding the behaviors in question
- Date, Time & Location
- License Plate / Vehicle Number
- Officer’s Badge Number
- Legal Organization (City, County, State Patrol)
- If needed, file a written complaint with:
- The law enforcement agency’s Internal Affairs Department
- The Mayor’s Office or County Executive
- A City Council or County Council Member
- A State legislator for your district
- The Governor’s Office
I recommend that you pursue mental health treatment for your 12-year-old son. The symptoms that you have indicated—nightmares, anxiety, bedwetting, fear of being without their parent and school avoidance warrant further evaluation by a trained child or adolescent mental health professional.
I would also recommend that you identify an individual who has competency working with ethnic minorities as well as advance training in the field of trauma for your son’s treatment. I would also encourage open discussion with your son regarding media coverage of police misconduct and abuse. I would be hesitant to restrict such information, as these are the realities of what can occur when an African-American male interacts with members of law enforcement.
I also recommend that you engage in a serious discussion with your 16-year-old son. During earlier times, when your 16-year-old was in elementary school, police officers may visited the kids in the classrooms, knew the kids in the neighborhood and may have resided within the community he served.
However, times have changed; it is often the situation that police officers may live in a different community or city, far away from the one the police officer patrols and serves. The consequences of this distance and separation lends to greater fear and tension that the officer may have towards the community he or she is entrusted to “protect and serve.”
Our children in general have the responsibility to “protect and empower” themselves. Specifically, our young people can choose to be dismissive of what is occurring around them in the world of today or they can choose to “Love the Self” by taking steps and adopting specific protocols directed for their protection.
The realities for young black males are sad, bleak and yet true. Across the United States, members of law enforcement, private security officers or vigilantes kill a black male every 28 hours.
Until change can be effected, the following is evident that one’s protection may be dependent upon one’s complexion. Through no fault of their own, African-American males and other males of color are viewed with suspicion, and even though they are entitled to the conflicting emotions they have about this, they must still abide by the rule of law and respect those who are sworn to enforce the laws of their community.
However, there is a distinct distance between “respect” and “trust” that our children must be taught. Specifically, respect is a “given” whereas “trust” must be earned.
Give the police officer your respect. Protect yourself. Empower yourself. Have the police officer earn your trust. Then trust with caution and consistently verify.
“To be successful with school and workplace politics: decide after careful consideration who to trust. Then trust with caution and consistently verify.”
-Ten Flashes of Light for the Journey of Life
The Visible Man