When children playing bring out the police in Cary

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I live in an apartment complex off U.S. 1 in Cary. One of the attractions is the sheer number of children who live here. Especially now that many schools are out for the summer, play is almost constant from early in the day until dusk.

The kids, including my son, build forts back in the wooded areas, play pickup games of soccer or basketball and ride bikes and scooters in the parking lot, among other things. They do, in other words, what children are supposed to do, even if at times they get a little out of hand. Although it’s a truism to say that children don’t play outside much these days, that’s simply not true in my neighborhood.

A few nights ago, a police officer knocked on my door. He said that he and his colleagues were going door to door to discuss issues in the complex. He asked about the lighting and whether I had seen any suspicious individuals around and then got to the main reason for stopping by: Had I seen any children playing in the parking lot?

It’s an odd question, one that only someone completely detached from the community would ask – and then only under provocation. The officer cited safety as a concern, but whatever the intent, it came off as little more than a ruse. The police usually don’t go door to door just to check in and, besides, the parking lot is at the end of a long, winding entrance that leaves little room for surprises. There have never been any real “safety” issues, at least of which I’m aware. If there are any, the problem lies more with the adults who sometimes drive too fast and carelessly, but no one is going door-to-door asking them to slow down.

It seemed clear they were responding to complaints. From talking to other residents and employees at the leasing office, I know some residents don’t like children playing in the parking lot because of the potential threat it poses to their cars, among other things. A stray soccer ball may bump a door, you know.

Fair enough, though I’ve never seen any car damaged from anything the children do in the parking lot, and they’re usually pretty careful – they’re kids, not idiots or, as some seem to think, vandals. But if that’s a concern, is sending the police door to door as if they’re searching for a suspect really the right way to go about taking care of the “problem”? Three police cars parked haphazardly out front with numerous officers knocking unannounced on doors making not-so-thinly veiled insinuations that playing in the parking lot is wrong, perhaps even criminal, is overkill. The officers were respectful, but the message I got was that it should stop – or else.

That point wasn’t lost on the neighborhood children or, it seems, their parents.

Due to several high-profile and often violent incidents, there’s been a lot of talk nationally about the relationship the police maintain with the communities they’re sworn to protect and serve. What happened in my neighborhood the other night is, of course, very minor when compared with such incidents, but it does speak volumes about the way the police view many communities and how those communities, in turn, view the police.

The fact is, for many police officers, ordinary citizens represent potential threats to be contained, as what used to pass for normal activity becomes cause for suspicion or, at times, is criminalized. Conversely, for many people, the police represent not a force for good but one to fear, and often rightly so because of the ways residents have been treated. Unfortunately, many of the children in my community have already internalized that representation – and this incident certainly didn’t do much to allay their fears.

If the police feel they must respond to petty complaints, fine. But go about it differently. If it’s the “safety” of children that’s at issue, then get out there and talk to the children themselves, even play with them. At the very least, stop treating them and their parents as potential criminals. Such a small, common-sense gesture may go a long way for all involved.

Hollis Phelps, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of religion at the University of Mount Olive in Mount Olive.