What Should We Teach our Children about the Police?



One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Vikram Bath says:

    I’ve had the same question myself. I think your idea of saying “The police’s job is to help people” is a good one. They can later learn to what extent that dictates their actual behavior.

    If I had a kid who wanted to know what to do if she needed help though, I’d probably ask her to find an old lady and ask her to call me.

    If I think back to what I was told about police officers, I don’t remember. I just remember always feeling a bit scared of them, which is a feeling that continues today for mysterious reasons. I have interacted with them before and have never had a negative one (not counting the TSA and stuff like that), but my feeling is still one of fear. I don’t think that’s necessarily unhealthy though. As I implied in the Living-alongside-our-protectors-post, you are *supposed* to be afraid of things with untold amounts of power that could be directed toward you. It’s not a sign of a psychological problem to be afraid of scary things.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      Do you think there is a difference between fearing something with power and respecting the power that it yields?Report

    • Avatar Reformed Republican says:

      “The police’s job is to help people”

      Except when it’s not, like if you are a suspect, or if they are trying to get permission to search your vehicle. They might try to sound like they want to be your friend and help you, but they do not.Report

  2. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I agree with you that it is difficult especially because of recent stories in the past few months, years, forever. There is still a lot of structural racism that causes the police to act very badly to people who are minorities especially if they are men.

    But I am not an anarchist and also see a need for the police because we still have crime and we need people to investigate crime and it is better to have the state do it than private hands because we also want to discourage private justice and lynch mobs. There are also plenty of stories (usually horrific) where the person who calls to report a crime ends up being a criminal and this must do a number to the police. You are trying to help a distraught guy who called to report the murder of his wife and children and he ends up being the murderer.

    I think the real solution is to stress to the police that they are there to serve and protect and to come up with procedures and policies that prevent the police from developing an us vs. them mentality and try to find ways to make sure the bullies don’t join the police force.Report

    • Avatar Damon says:

      “I think the real solution is to stress to the police that they are there to serve and protect and to come up with procedures and policies that prevent the police from developing an us vs. them mentality and try to find ways to make sure the bullies don’t join the police force.”

      This! And let’s also remember that they work for US. This whole crap about limited immunity is just that. They are our servants. When interacting with their employer, they should be the one deferential.Report

      • Avatar zic says:


        And while we’re at it, lets take a long, hard look at how we train police officers, too. Because I think there’s way too much emphasis on stopping bad guys (not catching, after the fact, but stopping in the act) and way to little on helping people and catching bad guys (after the fact).Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        The police supposedly exist to keep the peace. This means their job is to detect problems and fix them.

        These problems can be anything from a lost dog to a car stalled in traffic to two people about to start a fistfight to a guy mugging people to a serial killer.

        Unfortunately, almost none of them appear to understand this, and they think their job, in its entirety, is to catch people committing crimes and cause them to be punished.

        I’ve related the entire story before, but I will summarize: In my town, the police sometimes lay in wait for people driving away from bars and follow them to see if they’re drunk.

        Instead of, duh, *standing at the bar exit and catching them as they leave*.

        But if you do that, you can’t get them for DUI.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      I will lend a third shout out to Saul’s summary. Well said.

      I would add that as children gain maturity and understanding we can be more nuanced. I think a good and simple narrative makes sense when they are young. But as they get older and are able to understand the subtleties, I think we need to slowly prepare them for the existence of bad people abusing good roles.

      While making sure bullies don’t join the force!Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        What would you want that “good and simple” narrative to be?

        I agree that it should be an evolving conversation. However, I tend towards never lying to kids, which sometimes means artfully summarizing things.

        “Cops are good guys” feels like a lie of sorts.
        “The cops’ job is to help people” is true, at least in terms of what we want their job to be. Down the road, we can flesh out what it means when they are acting with other ends in mind.Report

      • Avatar Roger says:

        Agree with the latter paragraph. Their role is to protect us. The ugly details about human nature come later.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      It’s worth pointing out that everyone making or +1-ing this point is white.

      I’ve written about this in more detail, but as a u-m class white dude police officers have never been anything but courteous and helpful to me. I once had a teenage son caught shoplifting, and once had a son be part of a group of kids rounded up by the cops in the park because there were controlled substances being used. In each case the officer on the scene phoned me personally , had me come over and take over for them so that nothing needed to go on their permanent record, and if anything went out of their way to be accommodating me and my sons.

      So when I talk to my sons about the police, I always explain that they are there with a job to do, they are their to serve and protect, they should be treated with respect, yadda yadda yadda. But I have no doubt that if we were an African American family living in the exact same neighborhood, I would have a very, very different kind of talk about the police.

      People like me can, on rare occasions, have problems with “bullies” in the police ranks. Other people have to deal with far more systemic problems.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw says:


        Fair point. I’ve had to call the police for burglary twice and never had a problem with them treating me with disrespect.Report

      • I don’t see why it’s particularly telling that the plus oner’s (all three of them) are white. What they seem to be plus one’ing in particular is the part of Saul’s summary that stresses holding the police accountable to their role as serving us and not to give them unalloyed loyalty.Report

      • To clarify, they all seem to be adopting the very caution you’re urgin when it comes to how to view the police.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        What @gabriel-conroy said in his second comment here.

        And @saul-degraw I’ve had the opposite happen. When my kid was in high school, a friend stopped by, and described some other kids trashing a bike at the movie theater parking lot. We urged them to call the police. Years later, when another bike was similarly trashed, the cops came looking for my son (who was home, and had nothing to do with the first event, his friends were here when they called at my urging). The cops remembered that he was somehow involved in the first, and so came to round up my kid as one of the suspects.

        Granted, that’s small town stuff. But it did teach us that cops don’t sort ‘good guy, bad guy,’ so much as they sort ‘bike thief.’Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I thought about this today, as I was pulled over for the third time in the past month (oy). I thought about how the cops approached my car each time and how drastically different it was from how the cop who approached that guy at the gas station before shooting him when he went to retrieve his license upon request. I’ve never been afraid when a cop approached my car (in other situations, yes, but never during a traffic stop) but I realize that is primarily a function of my race.Report

      • Avatar Damon says:


        I think, additionally, everyone you pointed out is Middle Class or better. (I’m assuming). Being white and poor or lower class probably gets you a lot more “attitude” than having indications of status. With that said, however, how long do you think it’ll take until the behaviors cops display to the less advantaged/darker skinned transfers to their behavior to wealthier lighter skinned? As more and more cops become used to thinking about civilians, ANY civilians, the more likely they’ll treat us all as scum. We’ve seen plenty of this anecdotally on the webs.Report

      • Avatar ScarletNumbers says:


        I was pulled over for the third time in the past month

        As a white, middle-aged man, how is this even possible?

        Why did they pull you over?

        I think I have been pulled over three times in the last ten years.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley says:

        He keeps cranking NWA as he drives past the donut shop on the way to work.Report

  3. I don’t really know the answer and as a non-parent (and non-preschool teacher), I don’t feel particularly qualified to give advice. At any rate, it’s a tough question, akin, but not exactly similar, to the conflict between teaching respect for teachers, parents, and other adults while teaching how to assert oneself when abusive adults cross boundaries. I do assume that the parent has and ought to have more liberty in discussing the nuances of police behavior than the instructor ought to. The parent (again, I assume) likely has a better feel for what their child can and cannot and ought and ought not understand, and at what age such an understanding might be best imparted. The instructor likely has students at different levels of understanding, and as you allude, the instructor might also have very diverse selection of students, for each of whom the appropriate admonition might be hard to come up with.

    You do ask another question, however, that I don’t think I’d be particularly concerned about if I were a preschool teacher:

    And what of the children in my class who might one day grow up to be police officers? What do we want to be their foundational understanding of the profession they will one day embark upon?

    I don’t really want to gainsay the importance of “foundational understandings” acquired in the early years when it comes to later career choices, but, well, I will gainsay it. There’s plenty of time later on, in the preteen, teen, and young adult years to learn the complexities and contradictions of law and order and police power. I don’t think that question–which is tangential to what I take to be the main question you’re asking–is particularly important for instructors at the preschool level.

    But again, not being a teacher or a parent, I don’t know the answer.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:


      I will say that question was only added upon my final edit and is indeed secondary or tertiary to the other issues raised.Report

  4. Avatar zic says:

    When my children were very small, I said police were there to help, and that if they were ever lost and couldn’t find me, if they saw a police officer, to ask him or her for help.

    But around 11, things change. Then, it was police are there to enforce, and if you don’t treat them with respect, you’ll potentially be the person whom they’re enforcing the laws upon.

    At 16 or so, the message shifted again to don’t provoke, under any circumstance.

    But this last was wrong, landed my kid in jail, potentially for six months, for having a joint in his car after he was stopped for failure to signal at a turn in Utah. Now, my message would be that to be civil, to do what you’re told, right up until an officer requests a search of your person or vehicle. Then, I’d say to ask, first, if you’re being arrested. If the officer says no, decline the search.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath says:

      Ugh. sorry to hear about that.

      On my end, I’ve had a hard time trying to communicate to my wife that she has rights with respect to searches and the like and that she should exert them even if she believes she has nothing to hide. I’ve been wholly unsuccessful though.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        I hear that, @vikram-bath

        When I worked doing local reporting, people came to me with their stories all the time. The most disturbing ones were the experiences of attractive (and often poor) women with police. Just as being black and male proffers reason to have a specific set of rules to apply to those interactions, being attractive and female might merit a similar regimen.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        The most disturbing ones were the experiences of attractive (and often poor) women with police.

        Oh, without a doubt. A power-mad asshole cop might feel entitled to all sorts of ‘respect’ from men (Especially men without power, like poor men.), and cause problems from them when he doesn’t get it…but the thing is, the victims of such behavior *usually* can show faux respect and get away. It’s just words.

        With women, especially women without power, it’s often something else entirely that the cop feels entitled to. (And ‘attractive’, as always, is relative.)

        I suspect, proportionally, that the police do more stalking than anyone else. I’m not talking about stuff that is reasonable police behavior…trying to track down a wanted criminal is not stalking, obviously. But going up to a woman who isn’t any sort of suspect, demanding her name for no real reason, and looking up her address, is.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        There were definitely some women targeted; no brake lights? That will be one bj.

        Young women with developing drinking problems seem particularly prone.Report

    • Avatar notme says:


      Why not just teach the kid to use the turn signal and not have joints in the car?Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        He did use the turn signal. But he was driving unknown roads, was upon his turn before he realized it, and (according to the officer,) didn’t use it soon enough. There was video from the police car of clearly showing the turn signal, as well.

        As to the not having joints? I’m okay with joints. They weren’t smoking joints in the car, they were not inebriated. And I’m just not into prohibition.

        Better, I think, to teach them to avoid Utah. It’s a bad, bad place to go if you like to dance.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        And an unlikely place to find Jazz.Report

    • Avatar Roger says:

      My son was driving his older car across Utah alone with his (at the time) long hair and all his tattoos showing. The cops stopped him and talked him into helping them teach/train their drug-sniffing dog. They then spent a half hour with the dog going over every inch of his car.

      Lesson learned. Say no.Report

      • Avatar zic says:

        @roger that’s a very graceful way of putting it.

        I’m not so prone to that generosity.Report

      • Avatar gingergene says:

        My Brother-In-Law was stopped at one of those inside-Arizona border control stops and asked if they could search his car “for training purposes”. He verified that it was strictly for training and that they had no reason to search his car before politely declining, at which point the “training” agent got angry and declared that his refusal was cause enough to search his car.

        My BIL stood his ground and the agent called the local sherriff, who arrived 45 minutes later (Yuma, AZ- lotta ground for the sherriff to cover), and promptly told the agents, “If you’ve got no PC, of course you can’t f***ing search his car!”

        The way my BIL tells the story, the border agent seemed to genuinely believe he could search the car. I’m not sure why he even agreed to call the sherriff, but I’m glad he did, and I hope he actually learned something. Of course, my BIL is white, male and a former rugby player (but clean-cut looking), so he gets a little more deference when he says “Fish you, I know the 4th Amendment better than you do!” (Not to mention having the better part of an hour to burn.)Report

    • Avatar Mo says:

      Heck now with a lost small child, you may have to worry about the police calling CPS.Report

  5. Avatar Griff says:

    For little kids, “the police are there to help” is a good message. But black boys aren’t “little kids” as long as other people are; research shows that after age 9 or 10, police are likely to stop viewing black males as “innocent kids” and start viewing them as potentially dangerous thugs: http://mic.com/articles/84981/disturbing-study-proves-that-cops-view-black-children-differently

    In my view, the most important message once kids get old enough that police could view them with suspicion (so, probably 10 or 11 for black boys, early/mid teens for others) is DO NOT TALK TO POLICE unless you are going to them for help. If they want to ask you questions, the only thing you should say is “I don’t want to talk to you without my parents and a lawyer.”Report

    • Avatar Kazzy says:

      Thanks for sharing that link, @griff .

      Ken at Popehat has an interesting and evolving position on the “Do not talk to police” approach (which he once steadfastly advocated).

      See here: http://www.popehat.com/2014/01/15/the-privilege-to-shut-up/

      I don’t know how fully I agree with him, but excellent food for thought…Report

      • I’m not sure I fully agree with Ken’s post, either. But I have a hard time pinning down exactly why I might disagree. I do think the “don’t talk to the police ever” advice sometimes comes off as glib, especially when offered by someone like Ken. But of course, the glibness is what he’s arguing against. I imagine that while it’s generally good advice not to talk, there’s also a non-zero chance that not talking might on some occasions make things worse for the person.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy says:


        I agree. I think his ultimate paragraph sums it up perfectly (as the ultimate paragraph of a well-written piece ought to): “I maintain my advice to shut up. But I acknowledge it’s easier and safer for me — and for most of the people reading this blog — than it is for the people who most frequently encounter the police.”

        Basically, he is abandoning egocentrism and acknowledging that what might be the right path for him and people like him might also be the wrong path for people not like him. It is remarkable how hard that is for some people to do.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        That’s sorta what I always thought about the ‘don’t talk to police’ idea….that’s coming from a place where police *don’t* randomly shove people around and tase them for no real reason, and certainly don’t ever shoot them.

        In a way, it’s a little victim blame-y towards victims of police brutality, and in a fairly absurd way. The police do not act *less* abusive if you refuse to answer their questions, and in places where the police do have tendencies towards abuse, politely answering their question is much safer. People should behave towards police in whatever manner makes them feel safest.

        The behavior that needs to change is the *police* behavior, because right now large segments of society thinks they are in danger from the police…and those people are apparently correct.Report

      • Avatar Glyph says:

        I’ve honestly thought about feigning laryngitis, and scrawling my answers on a piece of paper, figuring the annoyance of having to proceed like that (and my terrible, illegible handwriting) might cause ’em to cut the encounter short. I suspect “simply not answering them” (unless you happen to be already lawyered up) is likely to result in a more difficult time for anyone, not just minorities.

        Probably not worth it (keeping the deception up could be problematic; if you get caught out things will probably go even worse for you; if it became a widespread tactic it’d become useless; and anyway, I don’t like lying) but the fact that I’ve even considered it says something sad about the point we’ve reached w/r/t public trust in the police.Report

      • Avatar DavidTC says:

        If I ever end up being questioned by police in some sort of serious thing, I plan to suggest that, if they wish to question me, I would be glad to drive over to the police station as soon as possible, and answer questions there. (And I don’t mean ‘as soon as possible’ in any sort of deferring way…I mean literally as soon as I can. 99% of the time that would be right away.)

        Why? A few reasons. The main one is I can ask that my interview be recorded.

        It may seem odd, but what I tend to worry about is the police officer just flat out lying about what I said and did. Put that in a police station with tons of cameras, record the interview itself, and that seems more difficult.

        Another bonus is it stops all this nonsense about ‘am I under arrest?’ questions. If they actually are planning to arrest me, but want to first question me without my Miranda rights so I don’t ask for a lawyer, they certainly wouldn’t let me get in my car and drive to the police station myself. (Yes, in theory, that could happen as part of some clever plan, but that’s a TV show plot, not real life. A random cop isn’t going to decide to do that on the spur of the moment.)

        Third, in case the questioning *does* go bad and they do decide to arrest me, it lets me to have notified people *in advance*. I’ll call someone, tell me I’m voluntarily being questioned by the police, and if I don’t answer their phone call later, I’ve probably been arrested.Report

      • Avatar Griff says:

        @davidtc , that is just the right way to go about it if the police politely call you and ask to talk to you, with one exception: TALK TO A LAWYER FIRST and, if that discussion leads to a decision that talking to the police is the best thing to do, bring her with you to the police station. Unless you are truly in dire straits financially, the cost of the lawyer for those two or three hours is far outweighed by the potential cost of talking to the police without a lawyer.Report

  6. Avatar Roger says:

    Reminds me of my grandson’s view of the police back when he was six or so. We were at Panera Bread after his soccer game and some cops walked in to the restaurant. He saw them, looked scared, nodded in their direction and whispered to us that we need to be careful and not use any bad words.

    His mom went over to the cops, explained his fear and invited them to the table so that her son could be more at ease around cops and their role.Report

  7. Avatar Citizen says:

    It is good to teach protect and serve as the job. Although I would say it is just as important to make the children aware of the current real conditions.
    Often I hear the ringing of this quote when explaining things to my son:

    “We must make the world honest before we can honestly say to our children that honesty is the best policy.”Report

  8. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    The question here is not how we should train police to understand their fundamental mission (although that’s a good discussion to have) but how we should train children to relate to the police.

    For the very young, @kazzy ‘s message “The police’s job is to help people” is a fair description of what they do. But especially for children from less-privileged communities where police frequently deploy violence, “The police’s job is to keep the peace” may be a better description and if the police are seen as perpetrators and initiators of violence that’s going to make for some intellectual discongruity. I wish I could say that police usually respond to violence when they deploy forced, but I am not at all sure that this is a true statement, especially in the troubled communities the OP highlights for attention.

    As the child grows older, and an understanding of the law and of crime develops, this can start to be nuanced in an age-appropriate way. “The police’s job is to detect and prevent crime,” and almost certainly by the time you’re dealing with a young teenager, the nuance that some police officers do their jobs in good faith and others do not will become pretty clear.

    But an age-appropriate emphasis on crime as a central facet of the police’s job is, I think, the right way to focus an older child and it also points at the larger role of what is or is not criminal behavior — what its consequences are and the role of other institutions like courts and legislatures in making it that way. That seems to me like it will ready the child to enter adolescence with an awareness that individual police officers are not homogenous and are part of a larger institution.Report

  9. Avatar Will H. says:

    I believe the single most important thing any person (not limiting this to children) need learn about the police is that their role is continually evolving.
    The first modern police force in the US was in Boston in the 1880’s. The first of the police departments as we know them developed in the early 1940’s.
    Significant developments have occurred since then. One of the current trends is extending the use of police officers as first responders to coordinators of services. Personally, I think it’s a horrible idea; but I’ve always been one to argue for a more limited role for first responders (more of an occasion for a Boy Scout rather than Deathwish IV, inho).

    On a functional level, the single most important thing to be eminently aware of is that the nice police officer is not talking to you because he’s your friend, but because he’s trying to establish probable cause. Whether that probable cause is established toward the speaker is just as good to him as it would be were it established for any other suspect.Report