The 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald — the black teen shot 16 times by a white police officer — put a spotlight on the troubled relationship between the Chicago Police Department and the city’s black communities.
The tension only amplified more than a year later when a dashcam video of that night was released, showing the teen walking away from police before the officer, Jason Van Dyke, began to fire. The video and conversations about that tragic event were everywhere — on TV, on social media and in homes across the country.
For questioner Mark Mesle, it inspired discussions about how kids should handle themselves when interacting with law enforcement and how parents of different races and backgrounds might prepare their children for those interactions. Mark noticed while his white friends didn’t feel compelled to talk with their kids about such interactions, his black friends and coworkers saw this guidance as a necessary part of parenting.
So he asked Curious City if anybody has reported on the disparity between white and black conversations about handling yourself if the police stop you, or conducted a survey about how Chicagoans talk to their families about police based on race.
The answer to that question is no — there are no formal studies that quantify the differences in how these talks go among people with different racial backgrounds. But we know anecdotally (and through our own informal survey) that black parents are much more likely to have that discussion with their children, and that’s because the stakes for those families are different. Black parents are more likely to fear for their kids’ safety.
Here’s what has been thoroughly documented: Black people, especially black males, are disproportionately affected by police shootings. Between 2010 and 2015, 80% of people shot by Chicago police were black, according to the most recent analysis by the Chicago Tribune — a group that constitutes about a third of the city’s population.
That reality led Mark to wonder:
What should we say to our kids about how to interact with the police?
For that, we turned to a panel of experts: a child psychiatrist, a former public defender and a police officer — for their advice on how and when to have “the talk.” And while the risk of a police interaction going wrong is significantly higher for black children, they told us it’s information that all kids could benefit from knowing.
Adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Adrienne Clark says it’s important for parents to be honest with their kids from an early age and to include more details as the child gets older.
She says that parents can start talking about these issues as early as age 6 when children start school.
“They’re likely to hear about police incidents — they’re on the news, and everyone is talking about these events when they happen,” she says. “You want them to hear it from a trusted adult before hearing it from their peers and classmates.”
For these younger children, Clark says books like Something Happened in Our Town: A Child's Story About Racial Injustice can help start the conversation. Published by the American Psychological Association, the story follows two families — one white and one black — as they discuss a police shooting of a black man in their community.
Here’s more age-specific advice from Clark:
Talking about police by age
Give details, but not information that might be above the language they’re able to comprehend or concepts that are difficult to understand (like discrimination and racial injustice).
Mention the role police officers play and the benefits of police officers, but help them understand that sometimes police interactions don’t go as they should and that sometimes people are hurt.
Younger Adolescents (starting around 10 or 11 years old)
Start talking about concepts such as discrimination and racial injustice, using historical examples.
Explain the inequities you might see in the criminal justice system, such as the rate at which black men are sentenced and incarcerated, but do so in an age-appropriate way.
Older Adolescents (14 years old and above)
Help teens, especially black teens, understand that implicit bias might cause police officers to view them as older and more aggressive than their white peers.
Share research with them to help explain this and other disparities.
Even if parents think their children are too young and innocent to be viewed as a threat, Clark says research from the American Psychological Association and others has shown that police are more likely to mistake black boys as young as 10 as older and less innocent, making them more likely to be face police violence if accused of a crime. That risk of a confrontation intensifies as kids mature into their teenage years and start to spend more time away from their families.
“So you might think, ‘I’m 16; I’m playing around,’” Clark says. “But get them to understand: You might be perceived as an adult.”
Teaching your children what they have the right to say — and not say — during a traffic stop can be key, says lawyer Patrice James. James is a former public defender and now works as the director of community justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. She says it’s fine for kids to give their names to an officer, but once the questions go beyond that, they should immediately ask for two things: a parent and a lawyer.
“It’s when questions go beyond [their names] that there is reason to have concern,” James says. “At that point, we are asking a child to decipher whether this is a safe question or not a safe question.” And that, she says, is more than most kids should be responsible for.
But, James says, there’s an easy and polite way to make that request that can help keep tensions from escalating.
“Say, ‘I would feel more comfortable if my parents are here. I would like to call my parent, and I would like to have my lawyer present,’” James says. “Those two things should end the questioning.”
But should your kids ask the officer if they, in fact, are under arrest? James says no, because they risk talking themselves into an arrest.
“It is so important to stop the questions as quickly as you can and as early in the questioning as you can,” she says.
A Chicago police officer interviewed for this story suggests parents teach children to stay calm and cooperate with officers’ requests. (Because he is a detective and often works undercover, we are refraining from using his name.)
Even if kids know they’ve done something wrong, he says, it is important for them to remain calm and compliant.
During a traffic stop, he also suggested teens (and others) follow these steps:
Turn off the ignition.
Roll down all of your windows — even if it’s winter.
Explain where your license, registration and insurance are before reaching for them.
The officer told us that, as a black father, he has had “the talk” with his own kids. And if they feel they are being treated unfairly, to deal with that later.
“What I tell my kids, and the children I teach, is just comply,” he says. “If the police officer asks you to do something, roll down the window and give them whatever they ask. And if it’s an unlawful order, there are systems set in place where that police officer will be held accountable for his actions.”
If kids feel their rights were violated during a stop, he advises they take down the information they’ll need to report them later.
“Every officer has a badge number, every car has a beat number,” he says. “Even detective vehicles have license plates.”
More about our questioner
Mark Mesle is a Chicagoan, a dad and outreach coordinator for the Midwest regional office of the National Parks Conservation Association. His question was inspired by a realization he had around the time of the release of the Laquan McDonald video.
“I’ve never had a conversation with other white parents about how to talk to our kids about how to handle themselves if they are pulled over by the police,” he says. “But for my African American friends and colleagues, that is a part of their parenting experience, and for some of them, it was a part of the experience they had with their parents.”
He said he hopes that a fuller understanding of the reasons behind this situation, and what black parents go through, will help create more empathy between Chicagoans.
Arionne Nettles is a lecturer at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a former WBEZ digital producer. Follow her at @arionnenettles.
Monica Eng is a reporter for Curious City. You can follow her @monicaeng.
Olivia Richardson, Jessica Pupovac and Mackenzie Crosson contributed to this story.