I needn’t explain that we are sitting on a powder keg that has enormous potential to destroy the country. Along very tense, very tangible lines of race, wealth, access, and location the people of the United States are more divided than they have been in a generation. There are issues of excessive force, racial and economic inequality, and the perception that police are above the law.
The matters of Police trust and Education are paramount among heated topics ripping apart the streets, offices, and dinner tables across the country. I needn’t explain the matter to you, because it is more than palpable in our front yards and lobbies. Plenty of articles will discuss the broken system, the racism, the classism, and the statistics of injustice. Some will address the problems of violent crimes, robbery, weapons possession, and drugs. More yet will discuss how to fix the system. Instead, I want to talk about an issue I’ve observed and a positive road to take in rebuilding, or in some cases building in the first place, trust and respect with law enforcement in poor and minority communities.
As a Teacher, I am in a position to work directly with hundreds of youngsters in New York City—almost two thousand total attend my school. I will share something troubling that I have observed:
The children are afraid of the police.
Perhaps not everywhere, perhaps not every one, but certainly a great number in the neighborhood I teach in, with the students I speak to. My colleagues and I try to address this in a variety of ways. Some of us try to assuage those fears in open conversation, others attempt to use books and stories, others share personal anecdotes, some explode just short of showing their politics like crow’s feet and grey hair, more yet attempt to lean on our school’s wonderful Security Agent as an example.
Each teacher approaches this issue as they can, and in their own style but it does not change the world of media, fear mongering, and ostensibly legitimate distrust that they are subjected to once they leave the school yard.
While teaching a lesson about English Rule in early New York, I had my students copy the definition of “rights” into their notes. Our Social Studies textbook defines “rights” as “freedoms the government must protect”.
My students took the lesson to a grinding halt. Hands immediately raised, as the Eric Garner Grand Jury verdict had been given only the night before and even 9 and 10 year olds cannot escape the news. Especially not this news, and not in a community such as theirs.
“But, Mr. Melendez, if the government is supposed to protect our freedoms…why did they kill that man?”
“Why are the police killing people?”
“The cops are just gonna shoot you.”
“You can’t trust the police, Mr. Melendez.”
I was given great pause, though not shocked. What other message had these children ever been given? The authorities, according to their early elementary curriculums are community members, but are often outsiders from elsewhere; often remove people from their community; are often portrayed as the aggressors in the media; are the characters that shoot at their avatars in video games.
Many of the children in my school are first generation Americans, many still are immigrants themselves and among other heated topics, the issue of legitimacy and status is not far from some of their minds, or at least their parents’. People underestimate kids, but they are like lightning rods and pick up and absorb tensions–even ones they don’t understand. To a great many of my students, I imagine that the police represent more them and they than us and we due to a lack of proper messaging in media, in the news, differences of demographics and race, and mixed messages on the whole. Teachers have recently been experiencing similar failure in messaging.
In many ways, teachers and the police share a mission. We both want to help. We mostly set out with auspicious, gregarious goals in our careers. We work hard. We don’t ask for thanks. And bad apples spoil the lot in the public eye. Messaging and community outreach—building trust—are balls that have been thrown squarely in our courts.
When the communities we service no longer respect us and no longer trust us the impetus is on us to reach out the community and build bridges. To put out the message of the good work we do. To push against media negativity in the face of unfortunate and negative circumstances, events, and happenings. This is true for any one in public service. Just as much as the community school needs rebuilding, so does the community police officer. We need to work together, and more often. When teachers fail at community outreach, we’re rated on it by the state…when police fail at community outreach they are rated on it in the streets.
We need to rebuild community trust in the police, starting in schools.
Students rarely see police officers in schools—and when they do, it’s usually not for good reasons. As a high school student, we’d see police officers, truancy, and school agents as the same force against us. Many employed all the same tactics and embodied the same swagger whether it was in the hallways, on the streets, or in the paddy wagon. As a teacher, we almost only see police when there’s an incident—medical or behavioral—and someone needs to be escorted out of the building. Another example of the police taking people away, removing from the community.
We can teach the children that police are the good guys all we want, but eventually we’ll have to show them if we want them to believe it, just as we must show them that one plus another one is two.
I’m not suggesting an occupying wave of police officers in the public schools of New York. Not by half. I am, however, suggesting that local precincts team up with districts and nearby schools for assemblies, presentations, workshops, and community building. Schools used to be the centers of communities, as we try to rebuild that institution we can bridge others and build mutual respect…get to know each other all over again for the first time.
It is true that on the streets, people are less trusting and far less respectful of the police than they have been in previous generations. And there are reasons for that—some real, some perceived, some owed, and some not. There’s also a disparity in experiences with police officers. Our students—our children—need experiences with the police that are honest, positive, genuine, and frequent.
Order through fear doesn’t seem to be working, and it doesn’t yield cooperative results. I hardly need speak of Muffin (who ain’t seen “nothin’”) to illustrate that respect, long standing relationships, and experience will inevitably lead to better, stronger community ties and eventually will lead to greater alliances.
Give the students reasons to trust the police. Make the police officer human, give him or her laughter, give him or her intelligence, give him or her personality, give him or her a history, give him or her humanity so that students know them when they walk the streets. So that the children on streets wave, say hello, tell their parents “I know him”. It isn’t indoctrination, or brainwashing…build a relationship with the community so they don’t feel occupied by a foreign power.
While the recent announcement that the NYPD will be retrained may be a great measure in the short run, it doesn’t do much in terms of messaging for the long haul–people will forget about the retraining soon enough. If our students grow up knowing the face of the police, knowing their personalities, and vice-a-versa it stands to reason they will grow up to be adults that know them as well. They will be more inclined to cooperation with the police. The police will be less mysterious and intimidating. They won’t fear each other unless there’s a reason for fear.
Long gone are the days of the neighborhood beat cop…
My father-in-law often speaks of Cecil Sledge who patrolled Canarsie in his youth. “Tough but fair” is how he describes him. P.O. Sledge was killed in the line of duty and is remembered in the community with distinction. I can’t name a single officer from the precinct I grew up in, dead or alive, and I imagine the same is true for many if not most of the children in New York City today. If Police are to be a part of the community, as we teach them at their youngest and in their earliest experiences they need to be a part of the community. At some point the policeman became the police force and the distinction is tangible. If there is to be respect and trust, children must grow up knowing those who serve and protect them.
Conversely, why not allow the officers to know the neighborhood? Not just the streets but the faces that live in those streets. When Johnny waves hello at Officer So-and-So how nice would it be for the policeman to say “Good afternoon, Johnny.” When Johnny grows up, he won’t be a potential perp on the street he’ll still be Johnny and rather than harassing him the officer will know him and address him as a person. “It’s getting late, Johnny” addresses the same need as “Get off the street”. It’s a big city and it would go a long way to knit communities together this way.
This is not a whitewash, of course. We must work together to route real systemic racial problems, dispel perceived racial problems, level problems of inequity, clarify problems of procedure and use of force, and address a variety of reasons for violent crimes, but for God’s sake, let’s create positive change too. Not everything is about stripping down…change can be constructive.
Let’s put a face on each other.
Perhaps the goal is lofty, and maybe that small town connectivity is implausible, but certainly the broader strokes of humanity and community alliance can be achieved, certainly a sense of respect and trust can be built. We can all agree that children shouldn’t be afraid of the police…the police should not frighten children and children should not frighten the police. When those children grow up, and become adults they’ll likely have a more positive experience too—especially with all that reform, retraining, and accountability being thrown around.