My 3-year-old son is a playful, witty, observant child who loves learning. Each week his school has a theme that’s connected to their curriculum. The theme carries throughout the week in the hopes the children will gain an in-depth understanding of the topic covered.
During Community Helpers Week in October, I received the daily photo of my son’s class. Each child was dressed as a community helper. Some were medics, others were doctors, there was even a crossing guard.
My child was dressed as a police officer.
A police officer.
My son’s school doesn’t know that I’m working to combat police brutality by holding officers accountable for unjust actions. If they did, they undoubtedly would have placed a different costume on him.
But looking back at his smiling face, I couldn’t help but wonder: What “community” do police officers consistently “help”?
My community is three times more likely to experience excessive use of force when interacting with police officers and officers are rarely held accountable for these injustices. That’s why we hesitate in contacting the police. The level of distrust and fear is heavy and real. Other communities may have the privilege of never feeling afraid or leery of police officers, of smiling when they see their child pretend to be an officer of the law, but that is not the case in Black America. We have no such privilege.
It was jarring to see him in this particular costume, a uniform that brings up such complicated feelings. My son is so joyful, honest, and sees the best in people—attributes I do not associate with all officers.
My son is also extremely emotionally aware: He notices when I, his Dad, or his teachers are flustered or frustrated saying, “Don’t get angry” or “Are you happy?” He’ll even add “I’m so happy” whenever he feels that way. The first time he said it, he was eating Cheetos at a school function. It brought tears to my eyes seeing that much sheer joy on his face. I asked him why he was so happy and he replied, “Because my daddy is happy.” I’m not sure why or how he became so attuned with emotions, but he is.
Will an officer see this version of my child if a “community helper” called the police on him? At what age will my child transition from being a cute little boy to a perceived threat to officers and the “community”? Sure at 3 years old, he’s pretty safe from society’s biases, but happens when he’s 13?
When I picked him up from school he had officer stickers on his clothes. He was so eager to tell me about the police officer who spoke to his class and about how officers protect us.
“The officers get the bad guys, Mommy,” he kept saying.
I assume this was the best way the officer knew how to explain her role to a room of 3-year-olds. Once we got home, I saw he also had Las Vegas Police Department patches in his backpack. When I pulled them out, he repeated, “The officers get the bad guys, Mommy.”
My heart silently broke. I didn’t have the heart to tell my 3-year- old that sometimes the officer IS the bad guy.
Still, seeing my son dressed as a police officer triggered so many emotions.
- Worry because I know what some officers do and get away with. Emotions like anger, knowing that my husband and I will have to have “the talk” with him in a few years to train him on how to handle (and hopefully survive) police interactions.
- Sadness, knowing our community is not always helped, protected, or treated with respect by those who vow to do so.
- Frustration that other communities are oblivious or simply don’t care about how officers treat people that don’t look like they do or have the opportunities they’ve had.
I don’t want my son to look up to, admire, or want to be a part of law enforcement in its current state—not until accountability becomes consistent and the standard, not the exception.
I’m not quite sure what I’ll say the next time my son says “the officers get the bad guys.” It will likely depend on his age at that time. Hopefully, progress will be made in consistent accountability and de-escalation so I can honestly respond “most of the time.”
I want to protect his innocence and Black boy joy for as long as possible. But in order to give him the best chance of surviving into manhood, I will have to let him know the truth.
Sometimes officers are the bad guys.
This piece was previously published here.