Would the Real Officer Friendly Please Stand Up?
by Casey J. Bastian
In 1966, the official Officer Friendly program was first instituted by the Chicago Police Department. Shortly after inception, the program became sponsored by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. This educational program was designed for elementary schools, focusing on kids ages 5-8. The Department of Education notes that by 1979, the Officer Friendly program was in 233 communities. That number expanded to 350 at the height of the program’s popularity in the late 1980s, prospectively influencing upward of 1.5 million youths. The cost to the foundation had risen to $400,000 per year.
On the surface, the program’s purpose seems entirely benevolent, viz., providing safety education while positioning the police officer as a trustworthy and kind savior of the community. Plausibly accepted as who could possibly object to safety education for our children?
In reality, the Officer Friendly program is viewed very differently depending on whom you ask. So who is the real Officer Friendly? Sadly, the response seems to depend on race. Is Officer Friendly the idealized vision in the 1958 Norman Rockwell depiction, The Runaway, where a cop is seen comforting a small White child, coaxing him to return home? Or is it the 1965 photograph of 5-year-old Aylene Quin’s son? A real image of a small Black child having an American flag ripped from his hands by an officer.
Many hear the term “Office Friendly,” and it harkens back to images of effective community policing and public service. Images of an officer helping reunite children and parents, finding lost pets, and giving a friendly pat to the head of a child or a wave from a passing patrol car.
They remember Officer Friendly visits with affection, highlighting the way policing used to be conducted.
Not all memories are so sunny. For those who have experienced brutality at the hands of the police or who harbor reasonable suspicions about those in authority, any notion of an “Officer Friendly” is ridiculous. These people view the Officer Friendly program as “copaganda.” A poster originally printed in 1991 is emblazoned with the term “Officer Friendly?” above a menacing figure fitted with a gas mask and brandishing an enormous firearm.
The schism between these two views is not new. The 1960s were a very turbulent time with respect to people’s views toward law enforcement, much like today. The police were called names and viewed as enemies of the people. There was a need to renew the humanity of the officers. Police needed to counter views propagated by the kids’ families where their elders did not have fond memories of the police protecting them. From this need is where the Officer Friendly program originated. A type of socialization where children were made into young adults who respected the police.
In 1979, the Department of Education published a bulletin that explicitly emphasized the program’s goal: “The public image of law enforcement officers – especially as perceived by children – suffers from negative attitudes expressed by parents, siblings, and friends as well as the influence of television police shows.” The New York Times conducted an interview of police officer Felicia Perry in 1986. Perry believed that the Officer Friendlies on her force were trying to humanize police to rebut what television was showing kids. Perry said, “They have one of two extreme attitudes about police officers. They either think we’re a superhero or we’re totally stupid.”
Law enforcement hoped to leverage a new “friendly” image to improve public relations. Though it seemed to work for a while, any learned positive effect drains away as the children age. Replacing the “good cop” nostalgia that is used to neutralize the negative sentiment in the American imagination with absorbed, real-world experience.
Officer Friendly isn’t gone today, but the program is highly diminished. Officers’ presence in school has morphed, creating school resource officers, frequently leading to increased suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.
The officers are supposed to evoke a feeling of safety. The kids would do well to remember Rule 10 of the “Officer Friendly rules”: “Be my friend, always.” Teaching the concept of “All police officers are friendly, if we are friendly.” What happens when the officer decides you’re not friendly? Tamara Myers, studying police youth work, notes, “There’s this feeling of protection and benevolence, until. ‘I’ll protect you as long as you’re on the right side.’”
The program sold a Utopian dream of community authority where we are all kept safe. Not hand-cuffed, roughed up, or suspended from school. This “copaganda” presents a simplistic and rosy picture, but it leaves us wondering: Would the real Officer Friendly please stand up?