Why we African Americans have ‘the talk’ with our kids

The US Commission on Civil Rights has a new report on police shootings, such as of Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
The US Commission on Civil Rights has a new report on police shootings, such as of Cleveland 12-year-old Tamir Rice. AP file photo

Watching the television news reporting the death of African immigrant Amadou Diallo in 1999, my husband and I looked at one another in disbelief. How could four police officers shoot 41 times at an individual armed with only his personal identification? My husband turned to our teenagers and asked, “What would you boys do if the police stopped you and asked for your identification?” In unison the boys replied, “Daddy, I would give it to him.” My husband then inquired, “How would you give it to him?” Our older son replied, “I would just give it to him.” The directive from my husband was, “No, you wouldn’t. Instead, you would inform the officer of the location of the identification, ask permission to get it, and very slowly obtain your license.” Such was “the talk” in our house.

Today, we must add Jonathan Ferrell, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, and many others to the list of African Americans killed in recent years by law enforcement during use of force incidents.

The United States Commission on Civil Rights, on which I serve as vice chair, this month released a report on police use of force and modern policing practices. The report has the potential to ignite a productive discussion which will result in some needed changes and saved lives.

As an African American mother of two sons and a former state trial and appellate judge, I know the benefits of good policing. I respect the difficult job law enforcement officers do each day to keep our communities safe, often at great personal peril. I have also observed and felt the distrust my African American community has of law enforcement. I have seen how the lack of trust impairs relationships with law enforcement and seen how challenging then it is for law enforcement to serve and protect communities.

While the force used by law enforcement affects everyone, excessive use of force appears to target communities of color. Many African Americans perceive that our lives are not valued during interactions with law enforcement. While the perception is real, law enforcement agencies are often not systematically collecting data on police use of force in order to provide an accurate assessment of the problem. Yet, what cannot be denied is the essential role trust plays in the “protect and serve” function assigned to law enforcement.

African American parents are having “the talk” with their children about how to interact during police encounters. The talk is rooted in parents’ legitimate concern that a police encounter could result in the death of their child. The talk is important, because it is one of our few measures that may preempt a deadly use of force encounter.

The story is still being written on use of force by our law enforcement. The Commission’s Report tells part of the story. It describes the repeated and highly publicized incidents of police use of force against persons of color and people with disabilities, lack of accurate data, lack of transparency about policies and practices governing use of force, and lack of accountability for noncompliance. All of these factors foster a perception that police use of force in communities of color and the disability community is unchecked, unlawful, and unsafe. I encourage folks to read the report, because it offers reasonable recommendations to address the national tragedy that is excessive use of force.

Timmons-Goodson is a retired NC Supreme Court justice.