“Mommy, why’s that man lying on the ground?” This is what my 4-year old daughter asked the first time she saw Michael Brown’s body on a news show I was watching back in August.
“That body?” I asked while fumbling with the remote to change the channel. “Yeah, mommy,” she said. “That man…he wasn’t moving. Was he okay?” “He, uh…” I started to say as I flipped through channels while also trying to come up with a G-rated story line for the Brown story.
“Mommy…turn back to that channel,” she demanded as my channel flipping stopped at a cooking show. “We need to see what happens to that man!”
“I know what happened,” I said, looking at the TV but still mentally exhausting the possibilities for a G-rated story line. “That man on the ground was hurt,” I said. “He was killed.”
“But…by who mommy? And why didn’t that police officer standing on the street help him?” I only told her part of the truth. I said the man on the ground was shot by the police officer, but that it was an accident. And because it was an accident, I said the police officer didn’t know what to do.
We sat staring at the cooking show for some time before my daughter broke our silence with a question: “Why are police officers so bad?”
This isn’t the first time she’s asked this. She’s asked variations of this question dozens of times this past year. And every time she’s asked, I’ve struggled.
Her questions started two summers ago after an incident with a police officer in a store parking lot. She was with my husband that day. They were leaving a store, holding hands as they walked toward their car. While walking in a crosswalk, a police car approached, waiting for them to pass. They were halfway through, walking at my daughter’s normal pace, when the officer became upset. He started honking his horn and yelling about our daughter walking too slow. My husband apologized, picked up our daughter (who started crying hysterically), and continued walking to the car. The officer followed, arguing with my husband about the incident and even threatening jail time, before driving away. An arrest didn’t happen.
My husband came home that day feeling a bit angry but mostly disappointed, confused, and even hurt. Stories of police misconduct aren’t foreign in the minority community. But until that day those stories weren’t his story.
He considered filing a police report against the officer but decided against that after weighing the seemingly unlikely odds in his favor. He survived that day mostly unscathed. But my daughter didn’t. Since then, whenever she sees police officers, particularly white police officers like the one who argued with her dad that day, she often asks “are they angry?” and if so, “will they send daddy to jail?”
I didn’t really talk to her about that day when it happened because after wiping away her tears, I didn’t really know how.
I knew she hadn’t forgotten about that day and her experience with that one “bad” police officer when she saw Michael Brown’s deceased body on TV. That’s why I hesitated when she asked why police are “so bad.”
“Police are the good guys,” I said in a knee-jerk response to her question that day, sounding less like myself and more like one of those PSAs I heard in grade school. Those PSAs, and the kind of police they represented — the blue uniformed hero with a shiny, silver star-shaped badge — that’s the G-rated version I want my daughter to believe because it’s easy and less scary. But if my daughter’s repeated questions about police have taught me anything, it’s that she needs more than that.
“If police are all good then why do some do bad things?” I know that’s the question she was really asking me back in August. She didn’t want my PSA talking point then. She just wanted me to tell the truth.
I didn’t say the truth that day but I have been ever since. “Police aren’t all so bad,” I’ve been telling her. But sometimes they do get it wrong. Sometimes they, like everyone else, make mistakes and sometimes unknowingly make judgments that affect how they treat people. I’ve been telling her that some police do bad things based upon those judgments and admitting to her that sometimes there have been times in history when their crimes have gone unpunished.
This isn’t the neatly packaged “police = good guy” narrative I’ve long wanted. But it’s the truth that I think we both needed. Since my new approach, things seem to be getting better. She’s hasn’t been asking as many questions. And I’ve been struggling less in being honest in answering the fewer questions she does ask.
“Why do police carry guns, again?” she asked yesterday when we saw a police officer pass out candy in the Santa display at the mall.
“They carry guns to stop criminals who want to do bad things to innocent people,” I said.
“But what if they kill someone who is innocent?” she said in response.
“Well then that’s not right,” I said. “That officer should get in trouble, don’t you think?”
She agreed, and smiled at the officer smiling in her direction. “Would you like a chocolate?” he asked. She looked at me then back at him. Shook her head yes and eagerly reached her hands out for her prize. “Mommy, he was a nice police man,” she said as we walked away.
“Yeah, he was nice,” I said back.
No longer aiming for perfect on this, I’m just striving for my best. I’m doing this with my fingers crossed that in the age of Ferguson, that will be enough.
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