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America's Children: The Trials of Growing Up in a Police State

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After a year dominated with news of police shootings of unarmed citizens (including children), SWAT team raids gone awry, photo ops of militarized police shouldering assault rifles while perched on top of armored vehicles, and reports on how the police are using asset forfeiture laws to pad their pockets with luxury cars, cash and other expensive toys, I find myself wrestling with the question: how do you prepare a child for life in the American police state, especially when it comes to interactions with police?

Do you parrot the government line, as the schools do, that police officers are community helpers who are to be trusted and obeyed at all times? Do you caution them to steer clear of a police officer, warning them that any interactions could have disastrous consequences? Or is there some happy medium between the two that, while being neither fairy tale nor horror story, can serve as a cautionary tale for young people who will encounter police at virtually every turn?

Children are taught from an early age that there are consequences for their actions. Hurt somebody, lie, steal, cheat, etc., and you will get punished. But how do you explain to a child that a police officer can shoot someone who was doing nothing wrong and get away with it? That a cop can lie, steal, cheat, or kill and still not be punished?

Kids understand accidents. But police shootings of unarmed people--of children and old people and disabled people--can't just be shrugged off as accidents.

Aiyana Jones was no accident. The 7-year-old was killed after a Detroit SWAT team launched a flash-bang grenade into her family's apartment, broke through the door and opened fire, hitting the little girl who was asleep on the living room couch. The cops weren't even in the right apartment.

Ironically, on the same day that President Obama refused to stop equipping police with the very same kinds of military weapons and gear used to raid Aiyana's home, it was reported that the police officer who shot and killed the little girl would not face involuntary manslaughter charges.

Obama insists that $263 million to purchase body cameras for police will prevent any further erosions of trust, but a body camera would not have prevented Aiyana from being shot in the head. Indeed, the entire sorry affair was captured on camera: a TV crew was filming the raid for an episode of The First 48, a true-crime reality show in which homicide detectives have 48 hours to crack a case.

While that $263 million will make Taser International, the manufacturer of the body cameras, a whole lot richer, it's doubtful it would have prevented a SWAT team from shooting 14-month-old Sincere in the shoulder and hand and killing his mother.

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No body camera could have stopped a Georgia SWAT team from launching a flash-bang grenade into the house in which Baby Bou Bou, his three sisters and his parents were staying. The grenade landed in the 2-year-old's crib, burning a hole in his chest and leaving him with scarring that a lifetime of surgeries will not be able to easily undo.

No body camera could have prevented 10-year-old Dakota Corbitt from being shot by a Georgia police officer who tried to shoot an inquisitive dog, missed, and hit the young boy, instead. Alberto Sepulveda, 11, died from one "accidental" shotgun round to the back, after a SWAT team raided his parents' home.

Cleveland police shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was seen playing on a playground with a toy gun. Surveillance footage shows police shooting the boy after getting out of a moving patrol car. Thirteen-year-old Andy Lopez Cruz was shot 7 times in 10 seconds by a California police officer who mistook the boy's toy gun for an assault rifle. Christopher Roupe, 17, was shot and killed after opening the door to a police officer. The officer, mistaking the Wii remote control in Roupe's hand for a gun, shot him in the chest.

These children are more than grim statistics on a police blotter. They are the heartbreaking casualties of the government's endless, deadly wars on terror, on drugs, and on the American people themselves. Not even the children who survive their encounters with police escape unscathed. Increasingly, their lives are daily lessons in compliance and terror, meted out with every SWAT team raid, roadside strip search, and school drill.

Who is calculating the damage being done to the young people forced to watch as their homes are trashed and their dogs are shot during SWAT team raids? A Minnesota SWAT team actually burst into one family's house, shot the family's dog, handcuffed the children and forced them to "sit next to the carcass of their dead and bloody pet for more than an hour." They later claimed it was the wrong house.

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Then there are the hands-on lessons being taught in the schools about the role of police in our lives, ranging from active shooter drills to incidents in which children are suspended, handcuffed, arrested and even tasered for what used to be considered childlike behavior. For example, police officers at a Florida middle school carried out an active shooter drill in an effort to educate students about how to respond in the event of an actual shooting crisis. Two armed officers, guns loaded and drawn, burst into classrooms, terrorizing the students and placing the school into lockdown mode.

It's getting harder by the day to tell young people that we live in a nation that values freedom and which is governed by the rule of law without feeling like a teller of tall tales. Yet as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, unless something changes and soon for the young people growing up, there will be nothing left of freedom as we have known it but a fairy tale without a happy ending.


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John W. Whitehead is an attorney and author who has written, debated and practiced widely in the area of constitutional law and human rights. Whitehead's aggressive, pioneering approach to civil liberties has earned him numerous accolades and (more...)

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