A few weeks ago, my family took a vacation to a beach town in Michigan and we had a blast. My 5 year old son splashed in the waves of Lake Michigan as my wife enjoyed the warm sunshine. I sat in the water and watched them in a moment of simple content. As we packed up to leave, my son wanted to hit the nearby playground for a while. After a few minutes of running across the brightly painted structure, taking a few plunges down the twisty slides, and climbing back up to do it all again, my son caught sight of someone standing near the play area.
A bicycle cop (or police officer, as we remind our son to call them) had parked and was doing a quick survey of the beach. My son was stoked. He thinks police officers are the coolest. He likes them so much he wanted to dress as one for Halloween last year, but his mother and I steered him away from the idea, because, well, we felt it wasn’t appropriate.
Anyway, he marched right up to the beach patroller and said in his unusually social manner “Hi!” The officer could have simply said a quick hello and went back to his business, but he took a few minutes to chat with the kid. He asked his name and whether he was having fun at the beach. Now, anyone who has heard my son knows that at this point, the poor officer received a solid earful of all of the fun he had that day. But he listened and treated my son like a friend. It was amazing.
And so my son loves police officers more than ever. He plays police with his friends at school. If you ask him what police officers do, he’ll say they help people and put bad guys in jail. He won’t say they shoot unarmed people. He won’t say they discriminate against people of other races. However, it’s becoming pretty obvious that there is an alarmingly large percentage of police officers that have those tendencies.
So I sit here with one overwhelming question.
What the fuck do I do?
My son is FIVE. He has years before he will ever encounter the police in a serious setting (I hope). We have time as a society to fix this shit. We can find better ways to prepare our police to handle these situations, and get rid of the asshole cops who refuse to fall in line. We can raise our young people to respond better to authority figures when necessary (it’s a two way street folks. EVERYTHING is). Or we can do nothing, and keep watching the relationship between the protectors and the protected disintegrate into anarchy. Do I wait and let the chips fall, hoping that he nevers knows the truth because it becomes ancient history, or do I rip the band-aid and crush his idea of what a hero is?
The truth is I am insulated from most of this. I live in a decent neighborhood where police are rarely needed. In fact, I live just houses away from a hard-working, neighborly African-American police officer, and when we see him out and about, I remind my son that he is a cop so that when he starts to hear about the arrogant, racist white cops, he remembers that there are some good police out there too.
But will it matter? Will we eventually just assume every police officer is a walking power trip with a cocked gun ready to unload into whoever he or she thinks needs to die? For my son’s sake–hell, for our future’s sake–I hope we can get a handle on this. Pass laws, fire people, create a whole new system if you need to.
But don’t let my son lose his heroes, because he’s not the only person that needs them.