These Are My Tools
Preschoolers get a taste of authority
BY RACHAEL CARNES
An open letter to Mayor Kitty Piercy:
As regular patrons for the programming we enjoy at the Eugene Public Library downtown branch, my children (ages 5 and 1) and I cheerfully came in on June 13 for preschool story time.
The librarian sang some songs with the children and read a book on safety and then introduced Sgt. Lisa Barrong.
Barrong had a sunny disposition, and the kids clearly welcomed her. And the beginning of the presentation seemed to be as expected, “I wear a blue uniform, it looks like this, and whenever you need help, you can talk to someone dressed like me.”
Then she described what was special about her uniform: Her radio, her badge, her police I.D.
Then Sgt. Barrong made what I would consider a grievous error in judgment: In front of a room full of very young children, she said, “Now, for my work I bring some tools,” and she pointed to her belt.
“What kind of tools does a builder use?”
And the children answered.
“And a doctor?”
“Well, these are the tools I use to do my job.”
Then she proceeded to bring the items out of their holsters, one by one.
“This is spray, and when the bad people are fighting, I have to use this on them, and it makes their eyes sting and they cry.”
“This is a nightstick,” she said, unfurling the imposing club with a jolt. “And when the bad people fight, sometimes I have to hit them with this to make them stop.”
She demonstrated hitting in the air.
“These are handcuffs,” she continued. “And when people are bad, sometimes they’re going to hurt other people, or even themselves, then I have to put these on.”
By this point, at least 10 people had left the room.
“And this is my gun.”
One would imagine this is a prime opportunity to preach a message of gun safety. But no.
“In America, being a police officer is one of the few jobs you can have where you get to carry a gun.”
Unable to do nothing, I raised my hand, and she called on me.
“Officer Barrong, I have tools, too, that I use when I find myself with a problem. I bet all these children use them, too. I use my brain, and I use my words. But I haven’t heard you mention those tools yet.”
“I was just getting to that.”
Barrong said she used thinking, talking and her pen to write reports.
After coming home, I called the EPD’s PR office, and communicated these concerns:
• Developmentally: Young children are literal, concrete thinkers. “Bad” to a child could be taking a cookie off the plate or pinching your brother. (“Does that mean I get sprayed?”)
• Politically, philosophically: If I am peacefully demonstrating, and the police decide I should disband and then proceed to spray me with pepper spray or pelt me with rubber bullets, am I a “bad person”? If I have a mental illness and am behaving in a way that is unsafe, am I a “bad person”? In an effort to simplify for children, did Barrong inadvertently jump right on over our “innocent until proven guilty” idea?
• Personally: Choosing WHEN and HOW to discuss violence and the use of force is an intensely personal and private matter for families. Choosing WHEN and HOW to discuss the poor choices that some people make, choices that bring harm to others, should be addressed by the child’s family. My daughter has fresh new fears about the world, courtesy of Officer Barrong.
• Again, these are LITTLE children. Baby children.
When I spoke to the PR rep for the EPD, she suggested that perhaps Officer’s Barrong’s presentation was not geared to that tender age group.
But when is it ever appropriate to normalize the use of force that — really — represents a failure to resolve a situation without violence? My cursory research into best practices in police educational outreach — in communities larger and smaller, more and less diverse than our own — has yielded dozens of programs that utilize police officers to teach about tolerance, communication and conflict resolution.
But this careless display by EPD failed to communicate anything helpful. It is interesting to note that Sgt. Barrong is the new crime prevention specialist.
In a letter to me dated June 18, Chief of Police Robert Lehner defends his program:
“Last year, EPD personnel made dozens of presentations, most frequently in schools at the request of professional educators and educational administrators. These occupational presentations are viewed as a valuable addition to a child’s educational experience at several different points in a child’s development.”
The day after this presentation, still shaken and upset, my daughter said, “If I saw a police officer, I would be scared she would hurt me. She has a lot of ways to hurt people.”
Rachael Carnes is a freelance writer and founder and executive director of Sparkplug Dance in Eugene.