My son loves cops

How and when do I tell him about Amadou Diallo?

By Valeria Russ
July 26, 2000 11:37PM (UTC)
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"Tell me a police story." My little boy made this request almost daily as I drove him to and from day care in Philadelphia. He was not yet 3, but somehow he had acquired a fascination with police.

So I made up police stories for him. They featured "Officer Big Man" and "Officer Little Guy" -- police partners named by my son -- whose work mostly involved checking out reports of giant, dinosaurlike monsters wandering the woods behind a little boy's house.

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In real life, however, the police story that had captured my attention at the time was the case of Amadou Diallo, the young West African immigrant killed when four New York Police Department officers fired 41 shots at him, hitting Diallo 19 times, as he reached for his wallet.

But I kept that story from my son.

As a black mother, I know I'll have to explain race and racism to him someday. But it seemed unreal -- cruel -- to explain the 41 shots to a brown boy still negotiating the final details of potty training.

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Still, I was torn as I watched my son strut around, macholike, pretending to be a cop. I didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm or imagination, nor did I want to teach him to be hostile toward police. When a close friend had asked what my son wanted for his third birthday, I told her. So he was outfitted with handcuffs and a badge and had his own police station with tiny toy cars and figures of a cop and robber.

Part of me couldn't believe I was helping him play out his fantasy just as the Diallo case was unfolding in New York. Part of me hoped -- yet knew it was unlikely -- that his love of playing cops would actually inoculate him from police "overreaction" in the future.

"Hey, I'm a cop too," he proudly told the security officer at my office. Then my son showed how he used his "backup," as he called his toy walkie-talkie, to call for assistance, something he'd learned from our daily police stories. "This is car 99, this is car 99, I need backup, I need backup," he mimicked.

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Yet, and as I write this, I think about the off-duty and undercover black cops who are wounded, sometimes killed, when white officers coming into potentially dangerous scenes don't recognize their black colleagues as fellow cops. They see only black men with guns.

How will I tell this brown boy so caught up in the allure of being a "cop" that one day he will have to be careful not to make a sudden move if he is stopped by police? How will I tell him about racial profiling, that some people will look at his skin color and automatically see him as suspect?

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This is a child whose eyes lit up as we drove past a white police officer parked in his SUV one morning. My son began waving and smiling. It took the surprised officer a few seconds before he waved back.

On trips to the mall or the post office, he has run up to police or security officers -- black and white -- eager to talk with them and ask questions. My neck stiffened in a prelude to real fear when one police officer asked -- almost officially -- "What's your name, young man?"

For African-Americans, no matter how law-abiding we are, no matter how much we respect and appreciate the dangers the police face as they do their jobs, history has instilled a fear of encounters with police officers, a fear that's especially intense for our young black men.

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My boy's fascination with police began to dim somewhat as he approached his fourth birthday. But my concerns grew deeper when, closer to home, on Jan. 10, a policeman shot and killed 26-year-old Erin Forbes.

Police said the part-time college student, who had been working as a security guard in an upscale Philadelphia suburb, had robbed a convenience store clerk of $4 at 5 in the morning. After a police chase, they said, Forbes allegedly charged at a policeman with a walking cane.

In the dark early morning hours, the cane looked like a barrel of a gun, Philadelphia district attorney Lynne M. Abraham told the press. She said the police officer was justified in shooting Forbes.

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Ella Forbes, a Ph.D. in African-American studies who teaches at Philadelphia's Temple University, does not believe the police version of what happened to her son. She says he would never steal from a store clerk. She believes Erin, who was stopped frequently by police as he drove from his suburban home to work, school and volunteering in North Philadelphia, was just angry.

"He once said he had a 'good week' because he had been stopped by police only three times," says Forbes. She believes he had a dispute with the store clerk, either over a perceived racial slight or over the change for his purchase. But he would never steal.

"That just wasn't Erin," she says. "Erin was so righteous, so honest."

I had called Forbes with trepidation after learning that her son was killed. Here was an African-American family, living in a quiet, suburban town near Lincoln University. She is a college professor; her husband is a microbiologist. And their younger son is dead at the hands of police.

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If it could happen to her son, the thought raced through my mind, could it happen to mine?

The 52-year-old scholar has a soft, pleasant voice that belies the anger she holds. She says she never expected her education or economic status to shield the men in her life from senseless violence. "I always knew it was a possibility. I knew that either of my sons, or my nephew, or my husband, or even my father could be subjected to this kind of action. And I resent mightily that it has happened.

"It goes all the way to the formation of this country," she says. "They had to find some way to justify enslaving human beings, while shouting slogans of liberty, justice, freedom and equality. Now there is this rationalization that unarmed African men are dangerous. Erin had no police record whatsoever. Yet there is this image that our male youth are criminals or prone to criminality."

I called other parents for their advice.

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One friend, who has successfully raised two sons to adulthood, said that before she told them about racial stereotypes, she taught her sons about African and African-American heritage, about black inventors, scientists and doctors.

When she laced up their shoes, she told them about the black man, Jan Matzeliger, who invented the machine that stitches shoes together. As she drove them to school or church and stopped at traffic lights, she told them about Garrett Morgan, who invented the automated stoplight (and gas mask). If she talked about someone sick in the hospital, she explained that a black doctor, Dr. Charles Drew, developed the technique for processing and storing blood plasma used for transfusions.

All of this made them strong and proud of themselves and their history before it came time to tell them that there are some people who will misjudge them. There are some police officers, she says she told them as they got older, that "when they stop us don't see us as human. We might get shot."

She told them, "Don't ask why they stopped you. You can inquire what you were doing wrong. Don't talk abruptly. Focus on the badge number and number of the squad car. Put your hands where you're supposed to put them."

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To me she said, "It's life-threatening if you don't teach your children. Any black person who is saying everything is fine, and we don't have to worry anymore, is a fool. It's not over yet."

Right now, Philadelphia is the target of national scrutiny and several investigations -- including one by the U.S. Department of Justice -- because of the violent arrest of a carjacking suspect by police July 12. The TV news videotape of officers hitting and kicking Thomas Jones has been shown around the world. Less than a week later, an Amtrak police officer in Philadelphia shot and killed a mentally ill, homeless black man wielding a metal chair at 30th Street Station.

Will Gonzalez, executive director of the Police Barrio Relations Project, which works to improve relations between the city's Latino community and the police, says he had to explain the videotape to his own children, ages 5 and 6.

His daughter saw the tape on television and asked him to change the channel. When he didn't, because it is his job to monitor such events, he told her, she walked out of the room. Later he told his children not to judge all police officers by the actions of some. "Overall," Gonzalez told his kids, "police officers are good and we need to support them."

"I tell my kids, and the kids in our workshops, that we have rights and responsibilities," Gonzalez says. "I talk about what is going through a cop's mind when he stops a car. How it's dangerous for the cops and how [the kids'] actions can be misunderstood."

How reaching for a wallet or a cellphone can bring down deadly force.

Gonzalez tells young people not to try to win an argument with an officer on the street, not to threaten to write down an officer's badge number -- just remember it. And if there's a problem, just get home safely and let the adults deal with it the next day.

"It's never too early" to talk to your kids, Gonzalez says. "And if they want to be cops, I'd say that's good. We need good cops. The best cops are the ones who don't shoot, who can get out of a situation with their brains and mouths, rather than their guns."

One day, I will have to tell my boy about Amadou Diallo. I will tell him that people sometimes judge black men unfairly. That they will form opinions about him without knowing anything about him. And that it is those who are doing the judging who have the problem, not he.


Valeria Russ

Valeria Russ is a writer and editor at the Philadelphia Daily News.

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