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A mom wrestles with her feelings about police brutality and her 3-year-old son’s trust of officers.

Photo credit: Ev for Unsplash

Dedrian Gerald, my 3-year-old son we’ve dubbed “DG,” is a playful, witty, observant child who loves learning. Each week his school has a theme that’s connected to their curriculum. The theme carries throughout the week in the hopes the children will gain an in-depth understanding of the topic covered.

During Community Helpers Week in October, I received the daily photo of DG’s class. Each child was dressed as a community helper. Some were medics, others were doctors, there was even a crossing guard.

My child was dressed as a police officer.

A police officer.

My son’s school doesn’t know that I’m working to combat police brutality by holding officers accountable for unjust actions. If they did, they undoubtedly would have placed a different costume on him.

But looking back at DG’s smiling face, I couldn’t help but wonder: What “community” do police officers consistently “help”?

DG during Community Helpers’ week at his school.

My community is three times more likely to experience excessive use of force when interacting with police officers and officers are rarely held accountable for these injustices. That’s why we hesitate in contacting the police. The level of distrust and fear is heavy and real. Other communities may have the privilege of never feeling afraid or leery of police officers, of smiling when they see their child pretend to be an officer of the law, but that is not the case in Black America. We have no such privilege.

It was jarring to see DG in this particular costume, a uniform that brings up such complicated feelings. My son is so joyful, honest, and sees the best in people—attributes I do not associate with all officers.

DG is also extremely emotionally aware: He notices when me, his Dad, or his teachers are flustered or frustrated saying, “Don’t get angry” or “Are you happy?” He’ll even add “I’m so happy” whenever he feels that way.

The first time he said it, he was eating Cheetos at a school function. It brought tears to my eyes seeing that much sheer joy on his face. I asked him why he was so happy and he replied, “Because my daddy is happy.” I’m not sure why or how he became so attuned with emotions, but he is.

Will an officer see this version of my child if a “community helper” called the police on him? At what age will my child transition from being a cute little boy to a perceived threat to officers and the “community”? Sure at 3 years old, he’s pretty safe from society’s biases, but happens when he’s 13?

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When I picked DG up from school, he had officer stickers on his clothes. He was so eager to tell me about the police officer who spoke to his class and about how officers protect us.

“The officers get the bad guys, Mommy,” he kept saying.

I assume this was the best way the officer knew how to explain her role to a room of 3 year olds. Once we got home, I saw he also had Las Vegas Police Department patches in his backpack. When I pulled them out, he repeated, “The officers get the bad guys, Mommy.”

My heart silently broke. I didn’t have the heart to tell my 3 year old that sometimes the officer IS the bad guy.

What I’m Not Ready To Tell My Son

That following Saturday morning, October 12, I read about and saw footage of what happened to Atatiana “Tay” Jefferson. Jack Howland, a local Dallas/Fort Worth breaking news reporter, was one of the first to share the heartbreaking news along with the bodycam footage.

I initially retweeted Jack’s post. Then I had nothing else to say.

I was—I am—furious.

Enraged.

Frustrated.

Hurt.

Every day I research cases of police brutality across our nation and every day I find a new case that I’ve never heard about before. All hashtags don’t get the same visibility. It’s infuriating to see the same types of issues happening every day in different cities. The names of the officers and the names of the victims change, but the interaction that led to harm and sometimes death, is eerily similar.

Here’s the usual play-by-play of events: Black, brown, and unarmed, the victim experiences harm at the hands of an officer. The officer is placed on paid administrative leave. The officer’s actions are deemed justifiable by a group of their coworkers in an internal investigation. The Black community feels powerless as we scramble to organize, protest, and post to social media to bring awareness and demand accountability. Instead of justice, we watch as officers and the media publicly demonize the victim’s character to justify their actions.

I want to protect his innocence and Black boy joy for as long as possible.

If we’re lucky enough to get an indictment followed by a trial, the Black community watches anxiously in hopes of a guilty verdict. Something to confirm that our lives matter to more than just us. We hope for justice but don’t expect it given history.

On the rare occasion justice is served, there’s a sigh of relief and utter disbelief. But here’s what usually happens: a “not guilty” verdict is announced we feel depleted, ignored, and angry, even though it’s what we expected to happen.

The family, if financially capable, proceeds with a lengthy and costly civil suit. They may be granted some financial compensation, but all they really want is their loved one back. The officer who murdered is back on the streets to potentially kill again, and the city is out of a large sum of taxpayer money.

Then the whole process happens again in a different city.

Rinse and repeat.

Though this may happen to individuals we have never met, we feel the pain as if it were our own family member because the next time it very well could be.

From #BothamJean to #PamelaTurner to #ByronWilliams to #AtatianaJefferson… It’s so much to process. If I’m honest, I’m tired of freaking hashtags. I understand their usefulness, but these are people. I often stare at their pictures wondering what their plans for the future were. How their laughter sounded. How they liked their scrambled eggs. How many hugs they’ll miss from loved ones… THEY ARE PEOPLE WHO MATTER.

We are people who matter.

Being A True Community Helper

I try to move my focus from anger to action, but I admit it’s difficult—once I gather myself from one tragedy, another one occurs in a different city. It’s a lot. A lot.

That’s why I am committed to action and not just stewing in anger and anxiety. I created 1 Million Madly Motivated Moms (1M4) to unify Black women—the people I know drive results—by focusing on their deepest motivation: their children. I believe that the force of our knowledge and influence can deliver the accountability we need in the criminal justice system.

I realize society needs individuals to enforce the laws; there is no way around that. However, we need to rid the system of those who abuse their power and replace it with individuals who truly live the vows they take for every community. We need more Black leaders who create the laws as well as justly enforce them. I believe our children can be the leaders we need.

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The only way to truly change the system is from the inside out. It’s a long game. No quick fixes will work.

Still, seeing my son dressed as a police officer triggered so many emotions.

Worry because I know what some officers do and get away with. Emotions like anger, knowing that my husband and I will have to have “the talk” with him in a few years to train him on how to handle (and hopefully survive) police interactions.

Sadness, knowing our community is not always helped, protected, or treated with respect by those who vow to do so.

Frustration that other communities are oblivious or simply don’t care about how officers treat people that don’t look like they do or have the opportunities they’ve had.

I don’t want my son to look up to, admire, or want to be a part of law enforcement in its current state—not until accountability becomes consistent and the standard, not the exception.

The author with her family.
The author with her family.

I’m not quite sure what I’ll say the next time DG says “the officers get the bad guys.” It will likely depend on his age at that time. Hopefully progress will be made in consistent accountability and de-escalation so I can honestly respond “most of the time.”

I want to protect his innocence and Black boy joy for as long as possible. But in order to give him the best chance of surviving into manhood, I will have to let him know the truth. Sometimes officers are the bad guys.

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Tansy McNulty is a military spouse, boy mom, and former corporate supply chain professional with over a decade of experience in cost reduction, risk mitigation, and logistics. She left Corporate America to focus on working to end police brutality and founded 1M4, a group of black mothers and mother figures who communicate through a secure site and use a portion of our membership dues to help members affected by police violence.

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