Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The "Other" Talk

I have always referred to my children as the "little janes."  Some people have assumed this meant I had only daughters, but I was using "jane" as a last name in this context.  In fact, one of my children is male.  He is an adult now and, at least for the present, not living in my house.

I've had "the other talk" with all of my children but reinforced it more often with my son.  It goes something like this:

Unless asked for specific information, there are three acceptable answers when questioned by the police:  "Yes, Officer;" "No, Officer;" and "I don't know, Officer." If pulled over when driving, keep both hands on the wheel, visible at all times.  Don't make any sudden movements.  Do not try to make jokes. If any movement is required explain in advance what you will be doing and why, and move slowly. If the police stop you walking down the street, stop immediately, keep hands out of pockets, stand still, no sudden movements, no jokes. If a police office tells you to sit down or lay down, do it without asking questions or making comments, hands visible. An officer has to assume you are armed and dangerous or potentially under the influence or mentally unstable. Their lives depend on starting with an assumption of the worst possible scenario. Give them the time and space to decide you are not an immediate threat.

The boy is tall and hit a growth spurt right around the time Pennsylvania passed some form of "castle doctrine."  I told him if he went trick or treating that fall (or any fall thereafter) he couldn't wear a mask or anything that covered his face.  Hats were okay provided his face was still visible. I told him that while he might still think of himself as a kid, he was as tall as a grown man and people who didn't know him would react to him as such. Someone seeing him walking around a house on Halloween (or any other night) might assume he was a burglar.

He went with me to a couple of political events and on the way to one I was pulled over. It was a teachable moment. After it was all over I talked with him about why I thought I hadn't gotten a ticket. What I did and did not do when interacting with an officer.

I know several of the police officers in our local force; some are my neighbors. Their jobs are difficult and often provide no margin of error. There was a shootout one street over a few years ago and an officer was injured. It is a dangerous, thankless, poorly paid job.  I've also noticed that the drivers I see pulled over on our local streets are African American far more often than our demographics would suggest.

My family is on the very pale /translucent end of the pigmentation spectrum. We are very white. I cannot imagine the stress African American parents feel when that talk with their children. It is surely more involved than the one I had with mine. As we see all too often in the news, someone who follows all the rules of "the talk" can still be shot.

We need to find a way to help police officers do their job without injuring or killing people who are simply going about their business. We need to make sure racial prejudices don't factor into law enforcement decisions. In the meantime, parents all over country will be having the "other" talk with their kids, especially their sons.

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