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You Can Be Anything You Want — Just Don’t Be The Police

Interviews With a Police Family.

By Featured, Literature

Illustration by Shijing Li

Growing up with parents in such a political job is not all privilege and getting out of speeding tickets — having police as parents is a heavy weight, for many reasons. My dad is a commander at a police department (that will remain unnamed, although he did ask for a cool code name), and he has been with that department since 2001. My mother served as a police officer at a nearby department between 1990-2000 before retiring to raise her children. Growing up in a police family has severely impacted the way that I view the world, and with  increasing cases of police brutality and murder, it’s only gotten more complicated at the dinner table.

We talk about police in the SAIC community often, as we should. The more we talk about it, the more I realize the privilege I have in receiving answers, even if they aren’t the ones I’m looking for. My own feelings on policing remain pendulum-esque. I’m proud. I’m nervous.

I asked questions intending to receive answers providing an inside look at how police officers, former and present, see modern policing. I interviewed my immediate family members (some spoke more than others) to investigate how growing up under these conditions affected our worldview and our perspective on current events. My family members have chosen to stay anonymous.

The first person I asked was my mother. Her anxieties lay in the trauma she experienced and dealing with that while raising a family:

What have you taken away from your time in the police department?

I think due to years of fiscal pressure that every ill of society has been thrust into jurisdiction of the police: the homeless, mentally ill, all these issues that the police were never trained in or expected to take care of, and when things didn’t go well, the police were left. No one else could handle the homeless or the mental health issues that have cropped up or the disenfranchised people. So, it just kept being pushed onto the police, asking them to do more and more, and the job has become untenable. … I’ve been online where they’ve been reading nametags off and next thing you know they’re reading off your home address, the name of your spouse, your kids, because it’s all online. … That’s a lot. That’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders. So, I think it’s going to take years to figure out exactly the role of the police and get it back to where it’s supposed to be, or realize that there needs to be more funding because no one entity can do the amount of jobs that the police department are currently doing.

My dad would work double shifts, sometimes three in a row, to provide for us when we were young. He never slept. He’s more open about that now, but I was less concerned about his sleeplessness when he was at my competitions and terrible recitals. He always made sure to be there for me, a field discipline he mirrored at work. 

It’s unsurprising that both my parents’ responses had somewhat to do with the value of family, and the protection of it. Their responses also had much to do with the question of, if not the police, who? It begs the larger question of if we need police, and if we need to burn the institution in order to save the ideals. I am grateful that as a young adult they are open to having these continuous conversations with me, despite their emotional difficulty. It’s important for me to keep in mind that these conversations can have love in them. Then again, I have the privilege of exercising that love.

My next steps were to go to my siblings. I was most interested in their opinions on how growing up in a police family affected their well-being and outward perspectives on timely events. Most simply I wanted to know how it felt having parents with an occupation requiring a gun and yearly therapy.

One sibling refused to answer the question, giving me a “Bruh. Pass.” before answering the much more general question of how they feel about modern policing:

My main problems are more with the prison system, to be honest; but in terms of policing, I think police are allowed too little training for dealing with too many circumstances. Instead of working on preventing crime, they are burdened by mental health incidents and domestic cases which should really be handled by social workers.

Also, I don’t think private police should be allowed, like, companies should not be able to hire police to protect business or property. Also, police shouldn’t be faces for the state, as in during protests. Their job should solely be to protect protestors constitutional rights and not to defend property or the people being protested against. I don’t know, police in protest are usually not good, and protests are handled very poorly by policing, I think.

This response has similar sentiments to my father’s; there is not enough training for the variety of circumstances police face on the daily. My next sibling’s thoughts ring true with the previous response:

I believe that modern policing hasn’t really done a good job of keeping up with the times. A lot of long-standing institutions…they are starting to implement more technology and hopefully more training. There definitely needs to be more, a lot more, advancement in training and knowledge and how to handle new situations that come up. I believe a lot of people pushing those changes don’t actually know what those changes look like and instead just want to decrease or increase funding. There is no real push for what should best be done. 

It’s about making sure the right people are in the right job and get the right training. Figuring out what that is, though, is not something people are talking about. “There needs to be police reform.” What reform? Dad’s talked about how there’s an issue where they want non-police responders to certain incidents, but no one wants to do it. It just doesn’t work out.

Their responses suggest that there is an undeniable and unavoidable problem with policing, and simultaneously argue that there is no real fix, and I have to echo their statements — it’s not the discussion or more or less money, more or less training. It seems that the conversations stall when we ask what the police are and what we want them to be able to do. The place where the conversation stops is where most of the answers lie.

The longest discussion I had was two hours on the floor of my childhood bedroom in the dark. I picked at the tufts of unfurled carpet, laughed and nervously shrugged. How do you have a conversation like this when everything you say or don’t say divides you further apart?

The things I took away from that conversation were ideas we’ve heard inside our childhood home’s walls before: It’s not possible currently to separate policing and racism, not logistically, and not in people’s heads. That beyond law enforcement lies several other institutions just like it, with the same systemic issues.

As children who grew up with a lot of pro-police propaganda and a lot of horror stories (sexual assault and suicide being main themes of car rides, due to our morbid curiosities), my siblings responses were hopeful and more timely than I expected. However, the question I never got the answer to, how they felt growing up in a police family, none of them felt comfortable answering, out of fear, or out of judgment.

So I will.

There is no separation between work and home. With a job like that, it’s nearly impossible. My parents were strict. They were terrified of most everything, especially men. They took their stresses home. I crafted empathy and sympathy from an age where I was still trying to craft it for myself too, which created a complex relationship between me and the people my parents worked for.  

There is no snapping out of the mindset when you come home from a job that has a holster. My parents lashed out at me. I lashed out at them. Sometimes, I felt like I was being treated like I was being arrested, put away, and waiting for a fair trial that would never come. Most of the time, I felt like I had the best parents on the planet. Both of these things are true and exist at the same time.

I know that my parents see the problems and the dangers of the occupation. There was one thing I always heard before my dad left for work, or at the dinner table before he left to clean his plate, but mostly when I was applying for colleges:

“You can be anything you want — Just don’t be the police.”


A 5am text I sent to my dad the following morning:

Thank you for sharing, Dad. I really appreciate it. I hope you have a good day at work!! Be safe. Love you.


Eliza Sullivan is a MFAW Graduate student dealing in ghosts and most recently, octopuses.
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