Arrive on the scene. Shoot. Bang. Dead child. Gone forever. Mother crying. Blood pressure, spiked. Doom, imminent. Siblings, distraught.
This predictable chain of events is what seems to happen when police officers arrive on the scene. Calling the police doesn’t seem to protect Black children, in fact it does quite the opposite.
We've seen children killed by police.
Back in 2014, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was shot while playing with a toy gun in a park in Cleveland, Ohio. The officer opened fire within seconds of arriving on the scene. In 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by a neighborhood watch officer near his home in Sanford, Florida. At the time of his murder, Trayvon was unarmed and carrying a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea. In 2010, Aiyana Stanley-Jones was 7 years old when she was shot dead by a police officer while she slept in her home in Detroit, Michigan—her grandmother was nearby.
Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager was fatally shot by a police officer. Brown’s body was left lying in the street for four hours. The trauma, anger and refusal to accept the reality of police brutality and chronic racism, galvanized a movement in the wake of his murder.
Black children are subject to criminalization at alarming rates. In Chicago, Illinois 10-year-old Michael Thomas Jr. was handcuffed by police officers because he allegedly matched the description of a 12-year-old suspect. In 2014 Kayleb Moon-Robinson, a black child diagnosed with autism, was charged with a felony—the charges were later dropped. And in South Carolina a student was grabbed from her chair and slammed to the ground by a police officer.
As a behavior analyst, I'm trained to assess situations and the environment before attempting to solve a problem. While my work is primarily focused on supporting children with autism and their families, the principles of behavior analysis can be applied to various situations.
Usually, my goal is to increase the frequency or intensity of a socially significant behavior. As a behavior analyst, I take a step back and think about what is happening. I approach each situation as a novelty, and disregard any underlying assumptions. It's not my place to guess why the child is crying, banging on the table or refusing to sleep at a reasonable time. I need to observe the situation, collect data and interview family members.
Through adopting these practices, I’m inclined to apply evidenced-based strategies to figure out what's going on. My actions are never premature or irrational, especially because the choices I make directly impact the well-being of vulnerable children. When I’m confused or unclear about what I should do, I consult with other analysts who have more expertise in a given area. I’m not prone to act on a whim or trust my gut. My decisions are logical, systematic and based on the fundamental principles of behavior.
If the police existed as some other entity, open to change and self-reflection, then behavior analysis could be a meaningful course of study for them.
Rigorous training programs and extensive time spent studying theory, and applying this theory under close supervision, could be considered as a way of preparing officers for the profession. Police officers would no longer be officers, but agents of their communities who are available to protect the social, emotional, and economic interests of all. Agents of the Community could provide counseling, mentoring, shelter and even free transportation—they could connect residents with practitioners of specialized forms of healthcare.
These agents could participate in healing circles, book clubs, potlucks, and volunteer to play board games with retired members of the community. They could lead outreach to people experiencing homelessness and offer homework help or safe spaces for children to play. They would reside in the community, frequent local businesses and send their children to local schools—each group of agents would be supervised by a senior board of agents, the majority of whom would be Black women. One could argue that these responsibilities are too much to expect from Agents of the Community. To counter this argument, agents could be organized into committees; there could be a health committee, a housing committee, a leisure committee, etc. Each committee would take on a set of predetermined responsibilities.
We must imagine alternatives that counter the brutality and subjugation imposed on our children. The systemic racism and state-sanctioned violence, which are perfectly honed components of the Police State is beyond reform. Something so corrupt and murderous cannot be reshaped.
I am concerned with creating a safe haven for children, especially children of color because their lives and experiences are often dismissed and devalued. Children of color also face disparities in access to good food, housing, education, healthcare and transport. We see children of color criminalized and detained in multiple forms of state-sanctioned violence, and this happens to citizens and migrant children alike. These children are exposed to the evil and racism of police violence, which often results in loss of life.
We need to imagine a safe haven for our children, which doesn’t involve the police.
Jacqueline Bediako M.S., BCBA, is an organizer, writer, behavior analyst and educator. Her writing focuses on black feminism, education, immigration, and race. As an organizer her work focuses on challenging systemic racism, protecting black families and building communities. She is an organizer with the New York City chapter of Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. Jacqueline believes in using education to empower individuals and groups to transcend the confines of their environment. A Ghanaian who was raised in the U.K., Jacqueline lived in Brooklyn, New York City for 10 years. She now lives in New Jersey. Learn more at jacquelinebediako.com.