So, You Want to Be a Cop?

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

After unlearning my own childhood obsession with the police, I’m giving my child the tools to shape his own worldview

The year is 2020. As usual, the news is on in our home, providing a background ambiance for our daily lives. The reporter, a White woman who is almost in tears, describes the latest developments in the murder of Breonna Taylor.

Murder. I use that word deliberately because seldom is it attached to the deaths of Black people who have done nothing but exist. And that’s what Breonna did. She lived in a world that did not love her, a world that has never loved anyone like her.

I’m frozen.

I want to change the channel, but I can’t. Instead, I stare, wishing that things could’ve been different.

What if “no-knock warrants” were unlawful?

What if they had better information?

What if she weren’t Black?

“Who is Breonna Taylor?”

I turn to my left to see you, all of nine years old, staring intently and waiting for an answer: Why did this happen?

The year is 1993. My mom and I rush down the street. She tries her best to match my pace, but she’s not nearly as motivated as I; I had a new Power Rangers toy to open, after all. The anticipation is killing me, but I notice cops across the street, surrounding a man who is handcuffed and pressed against a police car. As much as I want to open the toy, it’ll have to wait. I need to see what’s going on.

“Sandy!” I call out. I’d made it a habit of referring to my mom by her given name as a toddler — she allowed it because her name was my first word, so she found it cute. “Let’s see what’s happening.” She allows me to drag her toward the action.

I learned that you could be abused by officers and then blamed for the abuse that you received. If you are Black, there is no benefit of the doubt. There is no recognition that you too bleed red, especially not when your oppressors wear blue. I learned that I had a lot to learn.

I was obsessed with cops. Our uncle, my hero at the time, was a cop. My mom’s boyfriend was a cop, as were several of her friends. She incessantly watched police and detective dramas; my favorites were Columbo and NYPD Blue. Whenever prompted by an adult, I’d proudly proclaim, “I’m going to be a police officer when I grow up!” In fact, I thought I already was one. I was given a replica badge and my mom fastened it to a wallet along with a makeshift police officer ID. I carried that card everywhere.

“What’s going on here, officers?” I ask.

The three officers are talking in front of their cars, as my mom and I approach them. I flash my badge as they do in the movies, and they all smile. Unbeknownst to me, my mom knew nearly everyone at our local precinct, and they knew me.

“This guy? Caught him stealing,” one of the officers replies.

“Yeah, we’re about to take him in,” offers another.

Without skipping a beat, I yell, “Good work! You’re going down,” with my eyes fixed on the thief.

He wasn’t amused.

“Shut up and mind your business, kid,” he spits.

“Hey, watch how you’re talking to an officer!” one of the others barks back.

“Yeah, can’t you see this badge? Take him away, boys. Come on, Sandy. Let’s go now.”

I was a cop, and it was my job to fight crime. There was no telling me otherwise.

The year is 1997. I still want to be a cop, but I have questions:

Who is Abner Louima?

What is sodomy?

Why would anyone do that?

On the news, TV reporters talk about a man arrested for fighting outside of a club in our neighborhood. I later learn that he was an electrical engineer in Haiti, but he worked as a security guard to make ends meet. He struggled to succeed in America but desperately wanted to provide for his family. I learn much about his life and what he went on to accomplish. But as I watch that news report, I learn not all cops are the heroes I pictured.

I learn that you could be beaten relentlessly once in custody and made to choke on the same broomstick that an officer forcefully lodged up your rectum. I learn that you could be abused by officers and then blamed for the abuse that you receive. If you’re Black, there is no benefit of the doubt. There’s no recognition that you too bleed red — especially not when your oppressors wear blue. I learn that I had a lot to learn.

The year is 1999. One unarmed man. 41 shots. That’s the story.

His name was Amadou Diallo; his crime was being Black. The cops said he looked like a rape suspect. They also said that he might’ve been a lookout for drug dealers. Whatever their story, it’s clear that he was targeted because of his skin color. He pulled out his wallet, seemingly to identify himself. Some said they mistook his wallet for a gun; some said they believed he shot first. Some said they shot without warning or provocation.

The reasons no longer matter. I still want to be a cop, but not that kind of cop. Not the kind that harms innocent people. Not kind that I’m growing to fear.

The year is 2012. I’m not impressed by Gracie Mansion; the New York City mayor’s residence is underwhelming. A group of us from City Year are here to speak with Mayor Mike Bloomberg about policing within our communities. Turns out, it’s a waste of time. We sit around a conference table and discuss our encounters with law enforcement. Some of us speak about our own experiences, others about those of friends and family members. We tell Bloomberg that we’re against “stop and frisk” and want an end to it.

He feels differently.

He pushes back and explains that he doesn’t see the harm: If people have nothing to hide, then a minor inconvenience is a fair trade for community safety. He doesn’t understand the dangers of racial profiling and the anxiety of feeling unsafe within your own neighborhood. He doesn’t know what it’s like to have that kind of target on you. He doesn’t know because he doesn’t listen.

I leave our discussion and subsequent lunch feeling like a prop. Bloomberg needed to show that he heard the concerns of young people of color, and we gave him enough ammunition to fend off the media.

I still have a photo with him in a drawer somewhere. I won’t ever frame it.

The year is 2015. It has to be close to midnight, and we’re exhausted. Our five-hour drive exceeded seven due to holiday weekend traffic. We’re heading to Ithaca: me, my wife, and two good friends. We’re just about 45 minutes outside of the city as we stop at a McDonald’s and realize something is off.

It feels like conversations stop whenever we are within earshot. The cashier couldn’t have been less welcoming. We wanted to get out of there; before you knew it, we raced down the road.

I’m in the driver’s seat, but my vision is poor. I can see while wearing my contacts, but driving in the dark is not my strength. So, it’s no surprise that I miss the speed limit change — I’m now doing 60 in a 30. The cop doesn’t miss us.

This is the first time I’ve ever been pulled over, and my mind is racing.

Why’d he pull us over?

Okay, 10 and two.

Nobody move.

“What’s taking him so long?” I ask aloud.

“He’s running the plates,” my friend replies from the back seat.

We never talked about that moment, but I’ve always wondered how she seemed so calm. For all I know, she may have been freaking out just as much as I was but never showed it.

I want you to be successful in whatever you want to do and feel empowered to go after your dreams. I want you to grow up without fear that your life will be taken by those who have sworn to protect and serve.

I’m 26, had started my career as a social worker, and had no desire to be a cop. It’s Labor Day weekend, just five months removed from Freddie Gray’s spinal cord injury, 10 months after Tamir Rice was shot, and 14 months after Eric Garner was choked. The stories of their lives taken by officers of the law are still fresh in my mind.

To the officer’s credit, he’s polite, shows genuine concern, and lets us off with a warning. We even talk about our shared interest in obstacle course races. That weekend, Cornell would host a Spartan Race on its campus.

He’s a good cop. He made me feel safe and at ease like he was out that night to protect and serve. For him, that included everyone.

Yet, the anxiety I felt and the “what ifs” that ran through my mind never stop.

What if he pulled his gun?

What if I freaked out when the second flashlight appeared on the passenger side?

What if I didn’t have White women in the car?

I counted my blessings that night, and I still do.

The year is 2020. After a bit of thought, I answer your question.

“Breonna Taylor was a woman that was murdered by the police,” I say. I look down at you, knowing what’s coming next.


I struggle to find the right words. Before that moment, we had similar conversations, but they never got any easier. I never know when to be real and when to preserve your innocence. I never know when to protect you and just let you be a kid. The truth is that for people who look like us — for little boys like you — learning how to survive begins with your first breath. Learning how to navigate systems built to destroy you start before your first steps. Wondering why people treat you the way they do is never-ending. I want you to be a kid, but I constantly fear that you won’t be allowed to grow into a man, so we have the talk over and over and over again.

This is what you do if the police stop you.

This is how you act.

This is what you say.

Over and over and over again, but it never gets any easier.

I explain to you that Breonna Taylor did nothing wrong. She was a good person, and sometimes cops kill people who look like us because they’re taught to do so. We’re stuck in this system, and so many people don’t even realize that they play a role in it. I remind you that Black people and other people of color are often treated differently, and that is why we chant, “Black Lives Matter.”

You pause and look down. It seems like you’re taking it all in, thinking back to our previous conversations.

After a few moments, you look back at me and reply, “That’s sad,” before grabbing a toy and walking into the other room.

The year is 2021. You still want to be a cop. You also want to be a doctor to cure my mom’s lupus; the president, so that you can help people; and a “gamer kid” with a YouTube channel and a few million followers.

I want all of that for you.

I want you to be successful in whatever you want to do and feel empowered to go after your dreams. I want you to grow up without fear that your life will be taken by those who have sworn to protect and serve.

I just want you to be.

I still believe in cops. I believe in the good that they can do in communities, and think you’d be a great one. But I also believe in systems and know that we have a lot of work to create one that works for all of us. We can defund the police and still foster positive relationships with law enforcement. We can celebrate individuals who put their lives on the line and still hold them accountable for their actions. We can change police work for the better.

So, you want to be a cop?

Be the kind that we both idolized. Be the kind that does what’s right for everyone. Be the kind that you always imagined.

But for now, be a kid. You deserve that much.

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