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How We Engage In 'Discipline Theater' In Policing And Parenting


Finally today, I was thinking about something a parent friend told me once when I asked her advice about something I was struggling with where I knew my parenting decisions conflicted with what others in my circle thought I should do. She said, don't let yourself get sucked into discipline theater, by which she meant, don't make the mistake of doing things that you don't really believe in or that your own brain, experience and research have convinced you don't really work just for the sake of impressing the bystanders with opinions about what they think you should do.

And haven't we all done it? Raised our voices in the checkout line to let everybody know that no, we are not going to buy that candy? Brag to others about draconian bans on sleepovers, all to let it be known that yes, we are the parents and we are in charge? I was actually thinking about this because it was a week ago today that a North Carolina man named Edgar Welch walked into a popular neighborhood restaurant in Washington, D.C. and fired a semiautomatic rifle.

He'd driven six hours from his own home because he apparently decided that the thousands of law enforcement officers, advocates and other concerned citizens in Washington, D.C. were not up to the task of investigating false allegations from the twisted corners of the web, a story that there is a child sex trafficking ring somehow headquartered in this tiny little restaurant led by none other than Hillary Clinton. Although he fired the gun inside the restaurant and even pointed it at an employee, everybody came out of this physically unharmed, including Mr. Welch, who was arrested and is now charged with several gun-related crimes.

Now, others, including Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy, have already highlighted something that has no doubt occurred to many, that African-American men and boys who were either unarmed or in possession of weapons they were legally allowed to have did not fare as well as Mr. Welch, who is white. Consider the fate of black men like Terence Crutcher who was shot and killed by Tulsa police in September, although he also had his hands up and his back turned and was unarmed, or Walter Scott in South Carolina, who was shot in the back while running away from a police officer. He also had no weapon.

Can I just tell you I am also wondering why it is that those who have learned to defuse situations like this aren't given more credit? And here I'm contrasting this to another story reported on NPR's Morning Edition last week about a white cop in West Virginia named Stephen Mader who did not shoot a black man and may have lost his job because of it. A family member had called police because the black man, Ronald Williams, had indicated an intention to try to force police to shoot him, a so-called suicide by cop. He did have a gun, but it was unloaded. And more to the point, Officer Mader, a former Marine who had served in Afghanistan, assessed the situation using his combat training and felt he could bring it under control without using force. But others arriving later to the scene did not wait to hear Officer Mader's take on it and killed Mr. Williams anyway.

Obviously, there is more, and I invite you to listen to the entire story by Quil Lawrence and Martin Kaste. But the bottom line is that Officer Mader says he fired because his supervisors believed he put other officers' lives in danger. By trying to de-escalate the situation, Officer Mader was accused of not having the instincts for the job. The fact is, though, that the officers' lives were never in danger, so whose instincts turned out to be the correct ones? Theater does have a place in policing, as it does in national security - or parenting, for that matter. What is a show of force or of parental firmness other than another device in the toolkit? And if a show somehow prevents the need to use force, so much the better.

But I find myself wondering if the real issue is that we have somehow started to prefer the show to solutions. I've started to wonder if we'd rather look tough then be tough enough to try something new. If we really want to stop killing people who don't need to die, why don't we really focus on what actually might work instead of what the heckler's gallery thinks it wants to see?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered,where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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