The kids are watching.
When Philando Castile, a 32-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by Minnesota police during a traffic stop in 2016, he was sitting in the front seat of his car while his girlfriend’s daughter, a 4-year-old, sat in the back.
When Korryn Gaines, a 23-year-old Black mother, was shot and killed during a 2016 standoff with police in Maryland, her 5-year-old son was sitting so close to her he was wounded by, but survived, the police fire.
When Atatiana Jefferson, a 28-year-old Black woman, was shot through the window of her Texas home during a police welfare check in 2019, her 8-year-old nephew witnessed so much of the encounter he was interviewed by officials to clarify the course of events.
And just this week, when Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black father, was shot multiple times in the back and severely injured by police while attempting to enter his vehicle in Wisconsin, his three children, ages 3, 5 and 8, sat just feet away, watching from inside the car.
Police injure people and, as appears to be the case for Blake, those injuries can result in debilitating injuries and chronic impairments. In states like California, which openly reports criminal justice data, serious bodily injury is actually a far more common outcome than death, despite the fact that it is not as often publicized by the media. In 2019, when police used force in California, the victim suffered serious bodily injury more than 50 percent of the time. And our kids are watching.
Police surveil neighborhoods and accost people in public and in private. And our kids are watching.
Whether their exposure occurs as direct victims, direct witnesses or inadvertent consumers processing video playbacks on TV or social media — children and youth are observing and affected by police surveillance, brutality and violence. This is particularly true for Black, Latinx and Indigenous kids who, because of the disproportionate policing of their neighborhoods and tribal lands, are at greater risk for exposure to this type of community violence. And when children witness violence, in person and virtually, it results in poor self-reported physical health, mental health conditions such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and impaired school performance.
When police violence, in particular, is directed at members of their immediate family, acute effects include the separation of children from their caregivers (either through their arrest, incarceration or death). This is acutely stressful in the moment, but it can also impair children’s health into their adulthood. Witnessing police violence also shapes how children see themselves and their peers and can slowly taint the important relationship between children and their racial identity, a process known as racial socialization. This can lead some children, particularly children of color, to feel unjustly criminalized or unduly targeted by police.
Indeed, despite their age, developmental immaturity or unique needs, Black, Latinx and Indigenous children are not infrequent subjects of police suspicion, surveillance and violence. In 2011, 1 in 5 people stopped by New York City police were teenagers between the ages of 14-18 and 80 percent of those stopped were Black or Latinx. Kids with special needs are even more likely to be stopped by police. A 2017 study found that by age 21, an estimated 1 in 5 youth with autism had been stopped and questioned by police. These stops are not benign. They disrupt children’s healthy routines, penalize developmentally appropriate behaviors, threaten the well-being of children with special needs, scare children and expose them to risks for arrest, detainment, incarceration and violence.
In a recent online discussion hosted by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University historian Leah Wright Rigueur, aptly explained that “Black people live without sanctuary” from the harms of policing. And as devastating as it is to admit, Black children, and children of color more broadly, are no different.
Children of color lack sanctuary at home. Aiyana Jones was only seven, and was sleeping next to her grandmother in Detroit, when she was shot and killed during a 2010 police raid. Police raids are profoundly traumatic and the associated harms can be long-lasting for children. In particular, when raids result in the arrest of family members and caregivers, children may demonstrate symptoms of post-traumatic stress and concerning behavioral changes. And immigrant youth who experience or witness immigration-related raids and arrests of family members have higher rates of depressive symptoms and disruptions to their school and home life.
Children of color lack sanctuary in public. Tamir Rice, 12, was playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park when police shot and killed him within seconds of arriving on the scene in 2014. Public spaces like parks are meant for recreation. Yet for people of color, and their children, they are also spaces that are heavily and sometimes violently policed, by law enforcement and citizens alike. Jennifer Schulte, a white woman in Oakland, Calif., received the pejorative moniker “BBQ Becky” after calling the police on a Black family for having a 2018 cookout. Alison Ettel, a white woman in San Francisco, was dubbed “Permit Patty” after calling the police on an 8-year-old Black girl in 2018 for selling water on the sidewalk. These phenomena are so common and occur in so many settings, Journalist Michael Harriet coined the term, “white caller crime” to describe them and the online magazine The Root keeps a running list of these offenses since 2018. It is currently three pages long.
Children of color lack sanctuary in schools. In 2016, a South Carolina school resource officer (SRO) flipped a young Black girl our of her chair and dragged her across the classroom as other students not only looked on, but they also recorded it. More than one quarter of U.S. schools have an armed school resource officer despite little to no evidence that it makes schools safer and in the face of mounting concerns that SROs contribute to school violence, student arrests, and the disproportionate harassment and punishment of students of color and those with disabilities.
Children of color lack sanctuary in clinics and hospitals. Doctors, like teachers, are mandated to report any safety concerns to child protective services agencies. The vast majority of those reports are for neglect, which typically stems from poverty. But rather than address the roots of racism that disproportionately ensnare families of color in poverty, child welfare agencies, with the consent of reporting professionals that include their health care providers, often extend the threatening and coercive surveillance of police into children’s homes and core relationships. As a result, a shocking 1 in 2 Black children will be investigated by child protective services during their childhood, according to research published in the American Journal of Public Health. And while only a minority of those children are at risk for physical abuse or removal from the home, the damage and disruption created by programs intended to keep children safe remain significant.
So while study after study has demonstrated the impact of police surveillance and violence on adult physical and mental health, children are also affected as victims and as witnesses. And unlike adults, children are at vulnerable times in their development when such exposures may have long-lasting effects. Calls to reform or abolish the police must be understood within this broader context — because the people directly and indirectly impacted by the harms of policing are not only the men and women we have painfully witnessed suffer in video after video, but also our children and teens.
The kids are watching. And we must begin to determine how we will provide them sanctuary. Because protecting children from police surveillance, brutality and violence is critical to their health and well-being.