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How Parents Talk To Kids About Police Affects Legitimacy Crisis

How do parents talk to their children about the role of the police, and how to navigate an interaction with an officer? Researchers have determined that many factors influence “the talk” that parents have with their children, including what messages are deemed to be important for children to understand about the police, the race of the parent, as well as the parent’s own attitudes about the police with respect to their legitimacy as an authority.

With the death of George Floyd in May 2020 causing an uproar of protests, civil unrest, and the demand for police reform, people have been ultimately concerned with the legitimacy of the police.

Police legitimacy can be broadly defined as the belief that the decisions that officers make and the rules that they implement are appropriate and proper. When people view the police as a legitimate authority, they feel a voluntary obligation to obey them and the laws that they reinforce.

Currently, the police are facing a legitimacy crisis due to the series of police shootings of unarmed Black individuals over the last few years.

Understanding police legitimacy and how it affects the development of attitudes for youth is important, as it predicts law-abiding behavior, builds trust, and leads to cooperation with the police. However, due to Black individuals being disproportionately more likely that white individuals to be killed by the police and the fact that the trauma from these experiences is transferred to other Black individuals either directly or

vicariously, Black people are significantly less likely to trust the police and cooperate with

them. Thus, Black individuals, including youth, must navigate being a target of police brutality,

as well as being seen as a threat by the police.

Due to these racial differences in attitudes towards the police as well as police legitimacy, researchers conducted a study to examine the conversations that parents have with their children about the police. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know what messages about the police parents conveyed to their children, and if the parent’s own race and attitudes about the police had an influence on the content of these messages.

The study took place in the United States and consisted of 1,370 participants who were 65 percent

White, 24.8 percent Black/Biracial Black, 4.8 percent Latinx, 2.4 percent Asian, 2.4 percent multiracial, 0.4 percent Native American, 0.4 percent Middle Eastern, and 0. percent chose not to identify their race/ethnicity.

The survey focused on four primary components: Police Role, Compliance, Police Behavior, and

Safety Behaviors. Police Role measured for parents communicating messages that encouraged

their children to call the police when they are needed since they are an authority that serves to

protect the community.

Compliance measured for the parent’s belief that compliance is necessary when interacting with police officers, even if it’s unequivocal (e.g. do not ever talk back, and always do what the officer asks without asking questions); Police Behavior measured the degree to which a parent communicates messages about the police engaging in harmful behaviors (e.g. the police may treat you unfairly because of your race, or police officers may use physical force against you).

Safety Measures measured the degree to which a parent communicates messages to their children about behaviors that will protect them from police contact (e.g. avoid walking in large groups when around the police, be careful about the type of clothes you wear when around the police).

Results of the study showed that Black parents placed less importance than white parents on the overall positive socialization messages about the police (Police Role). Rather, Black parents focused their messages on the importance of knowing that the police sometimes engage in behaviors that may harm them (Police Behavior), as well as the importance of compliance and proactive avoidance (Safety Behavior).

This study overall shows the importance of understanding the messages that children receive

from their parents that they may internalize as they continue to grow and develop their own attitudes toward the police.

The socialization of children to the police directly affects their attitudes and behaviors toward this authority, as the perceptions that they have now will only crystalize as they enter adulthood. Therefore, change through policies and practices such as police trainings and community building events can aid in bettering the interactions that officers have with youth.

If officers can understand how Black youth were raised to think of the police and how to behave around them, they can learn how to interact with Black youth (and other youth of color) in a more racially sensitive and trauma-informed way.


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