Columns 2003

Parents need to teach kids about cops

A friend of mine recently commented that part of the problem at the teen dance at the Egan Center over Fur Rondy was that parents no longer teach their children how to respond to the police or how to act when stopped by them.  I thought about that and realized that I never actually remember my parents teaching me that either. I just remember that we were always expected to be respectful to the police and to go to them if we were in trouble. Seen from that perspective, the actions of the teens who went up to the cops to ask for help seem perfectly reasonable.

Most of the cops in my old neighborhood were local kids who’d joined the force because it was steady work with good pay and a nice pension. In Atlantic City in the 50s and 60s, being a cop was probably not viewed as quite so dangerous a profession as it is today. The bad kids – the Jimmy Dean look-alikes with ducktail haircuts, tight jeans and leather jackets – were probably a lot less violent and threatening than anything you find on today’s city streets.  The good kids – the ones whose parents insisted on knowing where they were and who they were with – learned early on that if they strayed too far from the straight and narrow, their parents would find out about it PDQ. In our world, next to the nuns and priests, the cops had eyes everywhere.

Today, if a cop tried to haul a kid home by the ear because he was out past curfew or hanging with the wrong kind of people, the police department would probably get sued for touching the kid.  My parents wouldn’t have sued the cops. They would have been too busy hauling my brother up by his other ear.

To a certain extent, I think police have themselves to blame for the tarnished image they sometimes face in the public’s eye. For those of us who grew up in the 60’s, images of cops turning hoses on peaceful civil rights demonstrators or beating anti-war protestors outside of the 1968 Democratic Convention still hold powerful emotional force. It’s why we called them pigs.

People who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s saw corruption exposed in one police force after another with criminal convictions overturned because cops lied on the stand or innocent people freed because cops framed them.

As so often happens, lost in all the headlines is the majority of cops who probably have ambitions not all that different from the cops of my old neighborhood – to have a safe day at work, keep their community safe from harm, and get home in time to have dinner with the family.

For instance, there was that poor cop who pulled my sister over for going through a red light. She must have been all of 18 at the time.  He walked up to her car, she looked up at him, leaned her head out the window and threw up while sobbing. All this before he said a word to her about what she’d done.  And she was cold sober.

He calmed her down, gave her a warning and then followed her home to make sure she was ok because she was so upset.  That’s how we viewed cops. Even when they were busting you for something, they were still helping you.

Those kids who turned to the cops for help during that dance fiasco were probably following their instincts and everything they’d ever been taught since pre-school about the policeman being your friend, the person you go when you’re in trouble. It’s too bad something like this had to happen and destroy some of that trust and rapport.

My friend is right. Most parents don’t teach their kids how to react when the police stop them. But they do teach them that the police are there to help them. Police actions at the Egan that night are probably going to cause a lot of teens to rethink that theory.  Ultimately, that loss of trust, whether warranted or not, can only hurt our community. Because if what mom and dad taught you about the police being your friend isn’t true, then what are they?