As parents, we don’t want to think about our children having a negative interaction with law enforcement. Ideally, we’d like to think that all experiences between our families and law enforcement will be positive and minimally stressful, but this is unfortunately not always the case.
Recent stories like that of Dravon Ames and his pregnant fiancee Iesha Harper in Phoenix, Arizona, highlight how sometimes simple situations can rapidly spiral out of control. Ames’ and Harper’s four-year-old daughter left a Family Dollar store with a doll without paying for it, leading to an expletive-laden confrontation with police threatening to shoot both parents, including Harper, who was holding a baby.
Police Sometimes Abuse Their Power
People make mistakes. Kids pick things up and take them, but parents shouldn’t fear for their very lives—and those of their children—because of a preschooler’s mistake. Shoplifting is a low-level crime in America, nor should children be exposed to swearing, especially phrases like, “I’m gonna put a f——g cap in your f——g head” from authorities directed at their parents.
Watching the video of Harper and Ames’s experience with the police is difficult. You can hear the frightened children in the background, terrified of what would happen to them and their parents. I would suggest, if you watch it, you do so without your children there because of the strong nature of the language the police use.
This isn’t the only negative interaction between a family and the police to hit the news in recent months, and for parents, it’s cause for concern. Black parents have long been having conversations with their children on how to be smart in their interactions with police, and it’s long past time for all parents to sit their kids down and have some age-appropriate discussions on how to handle interactions with law enforcement. Having these talks isn’t fun or easy, but could smooth the waters in a high-stress situation if your kids ever find themselves part of an escalating altercation.
How To Teach Your Kids How To Interact with Cops
First, take your kids through a run-down of what our rights are as Americans. How in-depth you go will depend on how old they are. The littlest kids aren’t going to sit through a long civics lecture here, but it should be an evolving conversation, starting with some history on why we have the Fourth Amendment.
Talk to them about our country’s formation and how important those initial fights over illegal search and seizure were, and where our place in defending that fits in. Also talk to them about when to dig in and fight to protect our rights, and when to pull back if in a dangerous situation where a police officer is unlikely to be reasoned with. Parents can teach their kids prudence, and this will serve them in every single part of their lives.
For older kids who have their own phones, parents should talk with them about their legal rights to record law enforcement. This is a lesson about the First Amendment for those teens (or preteens). Talk to them about why it’s legal, as found by so many courts across our nation, to record civil servants, including peace officers:
The courts’ primary rationale for allowing police officer recording is that the First Amendment includes the right to freely discuss our government, and the right of freedom of the press and public access to information. Given the prevalence of personal filming devices, more and more ‘news’ is being gathered and disseminated by members of the public. The courts have found that freedom of the press applies to citizen journalists and documentarians just as it does to formal members of the press. (See, for example, Glik v. Cunniffe, 655 F.3d 78 (1st Cir. 2011).)
Having a recording of the whole interaction can be incredibly helpful, and help kids feel like they’re doing something during a difficult situation in which they would otherwise have no reasonable actions to take.
Basic Respect and Good Protocol to Implement
Talk to your children about being respectful. This might seem beyond obvious, but it isn’t always. Keep your hands in view and don’t reach into your pockets without telling police what you’re doing (and what you’re reaching for). Realize that law enforcement officials see a lot of situations where things have been dangerous for them, and they don’t know what’s in your pocket. It could be a cell phone or a wallet, but it could be something else.
Take hats off in the car. Don’t obscure your face or signal affiliation with a group that could escalate a stressful situation.
Listen to what is going on and being said. Sometimes what the officers are telling people to do might seem wrong to kids, but it is not the child’s job to argue about that in the moment. Typically, officers are there to help. They are first responders on the scenes of accidents and disasters, providing aid. They guard houses of worship when there are threats. They put their lives in danger to protect others, and kids should be encouraged to remember that police serve important and valuable roles.
Still, when things are going wrong, or look like they’re about to go wrong, it’s not the time to escalate or get combative. The time to address overreach and infringement of rights is afterward, when the situation is resolved and people are safe. Review the situation, and let your kids know that, later on, they can engage in another long-standing American tradition: litigating to protect our rights.
Explain to your children that we are all part of a larger society, and it’s entirely possible to work toward being part of the solution for making America safer. You can respect our law enforcement and the difficult job that they do, while also holding them accountable when they abuse their power. It is the checks and balances, uniquely entrenched in American life and legal culture, that positions us to work toward solutions that make sure no family has to be threatened by those whose job it is to keep us safe.