Recently my husband came home from his shift as a police officer and my 3-year-old daughter leapt into his arms. As usual, she admired his shiny badge, but this time she saw something else too.
“What a beautiful gun, Daddy,” she said.
I was shaken. As a liberal New Englander who never saw a firearm until well into my 20s, I didn’t anticipate raising a child who sees a gun every day. But I’ve adjusted my norms, and I help teach my daughter about gun safety. Yet when the term “beautiful gun” shot from her mouth, I realized there is a much bigger conversation looming over my husband’s service weapon.
For now, my daughter knows that daddy carries a gun to protect people. Soon, however, she will ask about the unspoken truth: that keeping himself and others safe might require my husband to use the gun to kill another human. Last year, police officers fatally shot 987 people in the United States, while 46 officers were feloniously killed on duty. Firearm safety is spoken about often in the law enforcement families I know, but these deaths are not. The more difficult, yet important, conversation about service weapons is lost.
People may try to hurt me, and I have to do everything in my power to come home to you.
Betsy Smith, law enforcement trainer
“We have to, from a very early age and always being age-appropriate, talk about the fact that mommy or daddy might have to kill someone,” says Betsy Smith, a law enforcement trainer and retired sergeant with the police department in Naperville, Illinois, who has four adult children. Lt. Brice Google, a supervisor and SWAT commander with the Leon County Sheriff’s Office in Tallahassee, Florida, says he keeps open communication about all aspects of his job — including violence — with his three children. “I choose my words carefully when talking to kids, but they understand the responsibilities of my job and what comes along with it,” says Google.
Many people consider death and violence inappropriate topics for kids, but Smith says these conversations protect children by giving them a foundation from which to cope if their parent is involved in a shooting. The conversation can be straightforward, she says, along these lines: “People may try to hurt me, and I have to do everything in my power to come home to you. That might mean I have to shoot somebody. But I don’t decide who gets shot. The bad guy decides, and I react.”
Smith shared the story of another officer with two children, ages 4 and 6, who fatally shot a man. Knowing the story would quickly get out, the officer told her children matter-of-factly that she had killed someone who tried to kill her partner. “They’re not in the least bit scandalized because she was so straightforward,” Smith says.
It’s simpler when an officer is clearly acting in self-defense. Yet with controversial police shootings making headlines and social justice causes like Black Lives Matter often put in direct opposition to law enforcement, it can be difficult to have more complex conversations, particularly with older children and teens. “A lot of officers get this visceral reaction. Just discussing it, that tension picks up, and kids are going to notice that,” says Mike Wasilewski, a police officer and licensed social worker with a counseling practice in Oswego, Illinois.
Google, who is Black, teaches his children to be savvy media consumers, particularly when it comes to polarizing stories about police violence. “I tell them that the media is going to report what’s given to them, but a lot of times what’s given isn’t the entire story,” he says. He also emphasizes the fact that while officers are trained constantly, there is always room in the job for human error, even in life and death decisions. “[Kids] have to understand it’s not like TV, where a lot of times law enforcement officers are made out to be big superheroes, never getting hurt, always saving the day and never doing anything bad,” Google says. “They’re human, and sometimes they think and act impulsively as any human would.”
When an officer is clearly in the wrong and a shooting unjustified, parents should acknowledge that. “Not everyone who puts on a uniform has good intentions. It’s hard to say that, but it’s true,” Google says. Although the topic of violence is uncomfortable, it can’t be avoided today. Creating space for an empathetic and respectful dialogue is important not just for law enforcement families, but for the nation at large. “There may be pushback,” Smith says, “but we can’t just sit on our hands and say this is too hot politically.”
Kelly Burch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire. Follow her on Twitter at @writingburch.