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Explaining the “Why” Behind Police Violence Using Child-Friendly Language

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Police violence is a big problem in the United States, with Black, Latine, and Native Americans at particularly high risk of being hurt or killed by police. Talking about police violence and systemic and structural racism can feel tricky, complex, and confusing, even for adults. Talking about why police violence happens is particularly tricky for caregivers who are police officers themselves or have friends or family members who are. How can caregivers give clear explanations and initiate age-appropriate discussions with children? Check out the tips below for some guidance and kid-friendly language. And remember: this isn’t a sprint. We can build on our conversations over time.

NOTE: This resource is designed to talk about the ‘whys’ behind police violence - what causes it? It does not address the conversations that families of color, particularly Black families, often have with their children about how to stay safe during encounters with the police. If you are interested in exploring that topic further, check out the EmbraceRace webinar, “Moving ‘the Talk’ to ‘the Walk’ for Black Children.”

How to start:   

  • Ask questions. Ask questions. As with any conversation about racism or other heavy topics, it is always helpful to ask children questions to gauge what they may already have heard and see how they’re thinking about it. Depending on your context and the developmental level of your children, you might want to start with questions like:   
    • Have you heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter”? What do you think that means?
    • Have you heard people talking about police brutality or police violence? What do you think they’re talking about?  
    • We know some police officers, right? What do you think about the job they do? 
    • Have you heard the names George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Paul Castaway, Adam Toledo (or others)? 
    • What do you know about what happened to them? 

Digging deeper:

  • Talk about officers who behave badly. Police officers are people. Just like other people, some of them will be better and worse at their jobs; some of them will be kind and some of them will be mean. Some people decide to become police officers because they want to help people, but some people might decide to become police officers because they like the feeling of having power over other people – being able to tell them what to do or make them feel scared. Some of them might be mean toward Black and Brown people especially: they might think that people with darker skin are not as good as people with lighter skin. People who have those kinds of racist beliefs are not going to act fairly to keep everyone safe, so they are not people we want to be in charge of our safety. However, it’s important that we don’t let the conversation about police violence end here. There are causes of police violence that go beyond the individual. 
  • Try using this metaphor to talk about structural and systemic inequities and racism. Imagine that you see a lake and you find one fish that is sick. What might be wrong with it? Maybe it ate the wrong food or maybe it got some germs in its body. But then, what if we notice that half the fish in the lake are sick? Now we know that something is wrong with the lake. Now imagine, if you go to five other ponds and streams near this lake, and half the fish are sick in these places too! Then we know that it’s not just one fish or one lake being sick, there must be something wrong with all of the water. This is like the problem that police officers and police departments have. It’s not just one police officer treating someone unfairly, and it’s not just one police department making unfair rules for Black and brown communities, but lots of police departments having these problems. You could say that the police are swimming in bad water. This is what structural and systemic racism looks like – everyone is swimming in the waters of racism. (Adapted from The Groundwater Approach: building a practical understanding of structural racism” by Bayard Love and Deena Hayes-Greene of The Racial Equity Institute)
    • This metaphor might be especially helpful for caregivers who are police officers themselves, or families who know and love police officers. Just because we swim in bad water – or work within systems that are racist – does not make us bad people. But we all have a responsibility to try and clean the water – to change the things in the system that are hurting people.
  • Talk about unfair policies. Police violence is not just about individual people making choices – it’s also about the rules, norms, and culture of policing. It’s important to talk about how structural racism is embedded in our police departments:
    • Today, one way that police policies are harmful to Black and Brown communities is that the neighborhoods where many Black and Brown people live are over-policed. That means police spend more time looking for people breaking laws in those neighborhoods compared to neighborhoods where more White people live. The more you look for something, the more likely you are to find it. 
    • Another dangerous policy is that police officers are protected when they use excessive force. Sometimes police use force to try to protect people by using weapons – like their hands, feet, a “stun-gun” or Taser, or a gun – to stop someone they think has committed a crime. This might make sense if they believe that person did something really scary and dangerous and might go hurt someone else. But a lot of the time, police officers use too much force or excessive force, which means that the police hurt someone badly when they didn’t really have to. People of color are much more likely than White people to be victims of excessive force by police. 
    • In a lot of cases, the police protect each other when they use excessive force. Protection means that nobody gets in trouble for hurting people. Sometimes officers and their bosses will even make up stories and tell lies to make it seem like what they did was ok. This is one reason why many people believe all police should wear cameras on their bodies all the time – so that their actions can be recorded to make sure they are treating people safely. 
    • Another policy that hurts people of color is the use of quotas. A quota is a number that is like a target you have to hit. If a teacher tells every student in her class to go outside at recess, pick five flowers, and bring them back to class, then five flowers would be the quota for every student. Even though quotas are usually not officially allowed in policing, sometimes police departments have unofficial quotas for how many traffic tickets they are supposed to give out, or how many people they are supposed to arrest. (Unofficial means it's not written down, but officers still feel the pressure and might get rewarded when they meet their quota). When police officers have quotas to meet, some will unfairly stop people who haven’t done anything wrong – and this happens much more often to people of color and can lead to police violence.
  • Talk about untrue narratives. Unfortunately, a lot of stories that are told about people of color are stories that are untrue or incomplete. These kinds of stories are called stereotypes. Stereotypes can be found in many places, like the news, on the radio, in the movies, in television shows, and even in kids’ books! Hearing stereotypes over and over allows people to believe in these lies. And when you believe lies about people, you can end up less kind, more fearful, and more likely to hurt others. That’s what we’re seeing with many police officers and many police departments who end up believing the lie that Black people and people with darker skin are bad guys or criminals. But that’s not true and not fair!

Keep in mind:

  • Talk about the impact on people and communities. No one deserves to be seriously hurt or killed by police, even if they’ve done something illegal. Unless someone is behaving really, really dangerously, police should not use guns or use force that could injure someone badly. When someone is hurt or killed by police, it has a huge impact not only on them, but also on their family, friends, and people in their community. As kids, sometimes we are taught that police are community helpers. For a lot of people, and in a lot of cases, police officers are safe adults to go to if you need help. But police are not always safe for everyone. A lot of Black and Brown communities have learned, over time, that they can’t trust police to treat them with care and respect. That is not fair.
  • Make space for emotions. It’s hard to talk about people getting hurt by police, especially when the police are supposed to be helpers. Talking about things that are unfair can bring up a lot of emotions. “Sometimes, when I find out about stories where someone has gotten hurt by the police, I feel [(insert emotion here: e.g., sad, scared, angry, nervous, protective of you].” Lots of people feel these big feelings, not only for themselves and their families, but also for other people and communities that are hurt often by police. It’s ok to feel big feelings and to feel them for others. It’s also ok for us to feel different emotions at the same time – like being proud of the brave work our family member has done as a police officer, but also sad or guilty about the harm that many police have caused to people of color. 
    • Here are some ideas to help your kids process their emotions:
      • Write, draw, or music it out
      • Take a walk together
      • Make room for tears and hugs
      • Don’t forget that there can still be joy and laughter even in the midst of big, sad, angry feelings
      • Encourage action and advocacy to channel their emotions into (look to the next tip!)
  • Talk about what we can do. When we see a big problem, we want to do something to be part of the solution, even if it’s something small. Talking about ways to take action can help counteract feelings of powerlessness and empower kids to be changemakers. 
    • Ask your kid for ideas! What are some things you think we can do?
    • We can use our voices to share what we think by making a poster, by talking to others, or even writing a letter to people who work in the government.
    • We can join others who are already doing this work by donating money, attending a protest together, or signing a petition. We can listen to ideas that people have about better policies, like more training and education, making sure all police wear body cameras, or creating alternative helper organizations whose people don’t carry weapons and can be called in an emergency . There are lots of ideas out there! We recommend checking out the organization Campaign Zero and their #8CantWait campaign.
    • We can keep learning together about what is happening in our town so that we can do something for our community.

We can hold space for the good work that many police officers do, and we can acknowledge the problems with policing as a whole that put people in danger. We can be brave and voice our support for changing policies and practices that keep us all safe.