both a healthy skepticism of police and the proper respect for their authority. That respect wasn’t something I could afford to have at their age. It was better to simply avoid cops at all costs—for your own good. I try not to lay the weight of my cop phobia on their heads. They live in a safer community than I did at their age, where shootings are uncommon and police don’t occupy streets like a martial force. Still, it’s impossible to hide my fear for them.
My boys already know “the rules” to follow if they’re ever stopped by the police, especially while driving a car. Keep your wallet in the center console (where an officer can see it) rather than in your pocket, where you’d have to reach for it. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and never move them. When asked to produce your registration from the glove box, explain that it means you’ll have to move your hands off the wheel and ask if that’s OK. Following the rules is an act of self-preservation, but imparting them is tough in a neighborhood where my sons’ peers won’t need to develop the same existential distrust of police as they will. Even worse, names like Jonathan Ferrell and Trayvon Martin (for you don’t even have to be a police officer to be granted the right to police Black boys) are haunting reminders to parents like me that knowing the rules and doing everything right still doesn’t guarantee your children will make it home alive.
Already, my 16-year-old is almost two years past his first interaction with the cops. On the same weekend that Trayvon Martin’s name first crept into news reports, my son had the police called on him because he cut through someone’s backyard on his way home from school. The officer who responded called me to tell me how respectful my son had been, how he’d waited for police to show up even when other kids told him he should run, how he was so “Yes, sir-no, sir” respectful that the officer gave him a ride home.
Some parents would have been proud of their children. I was horrified. It was good that my son knew better than to be confrontational with cops, but waiting for them to show up and accepting a ride home weren’t choices I would have judged to be safe. The next few weeks, with Trayvon news breaking all over the place, were full of difficult conversations that nobody ever really wants to have with their child.
But better that than a taser and a hail of bullets.
Keith Reed is a senior editor at ESPN The Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @k_dot_re