Still, my friend said that we white parents never had to have that talk with our kids. (Fortunate us.) Except I'm sure my parents told me how to act when interacting with police. And there a couple of experiences -- direct, or shared by a friend -- that particularly stand out in my mind, that told me exactly why I should be careful and respectful when dealing with police.
My best friend growing up, Fred Curry, was probably 17 or so when he was driving home one night. He was pulled over by a police car on a country road. Fred had never had that happen before. He made the mistake of opening his car door and getting out to see what the officer wanted. He was ordered to stop. He looked behind him on the road, and saw that the policeman had his sidearm aimed directly at Fred over his squad car door. Fred realized he was in mortal peril, so he was very careful to obey instructions from that point on. He didn't realize that in exiting his vehicle he looked just like somebody preparing to engage the officer in hostilities.
Fred talked to me about it afterwards. We concluded that there was good reason to stay in your vehicle and let the officer approach you. The officer needs to be in control of the whole encounter, and you don't want to give him reason to think you're going to do something stupid.
Second memory: A couple years later, I was living in Greene County, but going to college at ISU. I was home for the weekend to attend an OA Dance Team rehearsal in Bloomington. I had three other teenagers in my car. We were wearing Boy Scout t-shirts and such. Our trunk was stuffed full of gear, including a whole bunch of delicate, feathered costuming. We came up to a roadblock. The police were stopping every car. Several police cars were in evidence, and at least three officers surrounded each vehicle they were checking.
When our turn came, I rolled my window down, and asked the officer approaching me what was up. He told me curtly that he needed me to get out of the car and pop my trunk. I was surprised. I thought it might be a drug stop. On the other hand, we were self-evidently a bunch of Scout geeks. What could he be looking for? I asked him, as I moved around to the back of the car, what they were looking for. He bit off the words, "A seventeen-year-old cop killer."
Well, that explained a lot. And we didn't look quite so harmless then, did we? I shut the @#*! up and let him get on with his work, and didn't speak unless I was spoken to. He looked briefly under a pile of feathers and told us we could go. I never did learn any more of that story. But as we drove off, I told the rattled younger Scouts with me what that was about, and we had a serious talk about behaving unthreateningly and non-annoyingly in the presence of very tense cops with a job to do.
These two encounters formed my notion of how to behave in certain fraught situations, which even white kids in rural Indiana could get into through no fault of their own. At the same time, I knew cops who were basically doofuses, or who liked to use their authority to act big, or who mistook one kid's actions for another's and gave him grief. Hey, small town life is small town life. We didn't like or even respect every policeman we knew as a person, nor assume that he was always right about a situation. But we were not stupid about the policeman as an officer, and our need to cooperate very precisely with the policeman's orders until the circumstances allowed a more relaxed set of behaviors. And we shared that lore amongst ourselves, as well as hearing from our parents how to act when out on our own.
Again, I'm not dismissing the fears of African-American parents, nor trying to give unsolicited advice about how they should deal with the things they worry about. I don't share their existential situation. But as for the idea that we white parents -- or the white kids we once were -- never had to consider how an encounter with a policeman could go terribly, terribly wrong, well that's ridiculous. "The talk" is something everyone needs to have -- elder generation with younger, and also peer with peer.
Afterthought. Thankfully, (even small-town) policemen are better trained now than they were when I was young. Indeed, policemen everywhere are very professional and trained to deal with the public in ways that de-escalate situations. But policemen also have a particular outlook, wherever they are, and you have to account for that; part of that outlook is the wariness that comes from realizing that every shift could throw up a situation that could lead to their own injury or death. Acting in a challenging or erratic manner in dealing with them makes you look like a threat, and that's stupid.