My mother used to always tell us, “If you ever got lost or separated, find a police officer and ask for help.”
It has been a real struggle to be able to say that with full confidence to my children, including my students. Trayvon Martin’s mother probably told him the same thing. Tamil Rice’s mother probably said that as well. We are suppose to be able to tell our children that police officers and other law enforcement officials will protect them or guide them to safety, even if they are doing wrong.
We all know that is not the case. In the year 2016 “...in the U.S. a total of 509 citizens have been killed this year alone by police. The body count for the previous year stands at a grand total of 990 people shot dead… Minority males are nine times likely to be shot during an interaction with police. And let’s not even mention whether they have a mental illness or not.
At first glance these statistics wouldn’t seem odd. However a closer look shows the disproportionate number of deaths by race and the percentage of the population. In other words black males make up less of the race but are killed the most.
Why is this? That’s like saying I’m going to eat all the pepperoni pizza because there’s only one out of three pizzas that are pepperoni. Doesn’t make sense does it?
So what am I to do? I am a mother and an educator. I see Emmit Till’s, Michael Brown’s, and Tamir Rice’s every day in my classroom. How in the world do I convince them they are safe?
I’m ashamed to say it took me a very long time to answer this question. How could I possibly convince my students that their lives are precious, and they have nothing to fear when interacting with law enforcement? Guess what! I have an answer! I know the solution! (And no it’s not more officer training!)
Build a relationship. We do it every day with other people in our lives and it makes a big difference in the way we treat one another. I had to let go of my anger. I slowly started to have conversations with police officers. I’d smile and say hello and receive the same in return. I’d wave and they’d wave back. Ok. I can do this.
Eventually I took a picture with police officers and invited them to my classroom to speak about their occupations. Good but not enough.
So last month during one of our Men of Honor sessions I invited our Durham County Deputy Sheriff to speak to the young men. (Men of Honor is a program I created to help young boys grow up to become successful young men.) I’d worked with Sheriff Andrew’s wife previously. She’s a teacher as well. I’d followed them via social media and loved all the work they were doing within the community.
They were exactly what the doctor ordered.
Sheriff Andrews talked to the boys about how special they were and told them he wants to see every one of them grow up into respected young men who live out their dreams. He talked about how EVERYONE deserves positive communication and respect in the eyes of the law. He told them he absolutely emphasizes this with every one of his officers.
His wife, Pamela, discussed how she feels when her husband goes off to work and she knows he could get hurt or worse (He had already been shot at and in a horrendous accident).
It really opened the boys’ eyes. They started to see him as a human being, someone who truly cares about their safety and wanted to encourage them as well. His live is valuable as well. He is just as important as they are.
By the end of the conversation the boys realized that had another advocate in their corner. They asked him questions. He asked them questions. I was witnessing the change that needed to happen.
Sheriff Andrews is coming back to visit my sons. Next time it will be bringing some of his guys to play in a basketball tournament. Parents will be there. Educators will be there. But most important black boys will there. And it will be a display of the true meaning of the words community connections.
Now the boys know if you ever get lost, if they ever need help…go to Sheriff Andrews.