Playing Good Cop

The Officer Friendly school program left kids with sunny visions of community policing—and adults with an inaccurate view of history.

The cover of Officer Friendly Teacher's Resource Unit booklet from 1968 seen over an enlarged, slightly faded version of the same cover.
The cover of the Officer Friendly Teacher’s Resource Unit booklet from 1968. Sears-Roebuck Foundation

In early April in Baltimore, a woman filmed a police officer walking toward her. “Hey, Officer Friendly with the cherry cheeks!” she shouts, taunting the unmasked policeman. He pushes past and coughs right in her face. (The sergeant was later reassigned.) In June, Baltimore rapper Kaflow Kaboom released a song sampling the video, called “Officer Friendly,” which slams the officer’s actions and other miscarriages of the criminal justice system: “So fuck you to Officer Friendly/ And by the way, fuck you to Zimmerman.”

This was a particularly bitter pandemic-themed update, but Officer Friendly—the elementary school educational program, most popular from the 1970s through the 1990s, that positioned the police officer as kindly community protector—has been fodder for civilian satire for years. You can buy a poster, originally printed in 1991 (now reprinted for the benefit of the Bail Project and the Black Visions Collective), featuring the words “Officer Friendly?” in blazing white against a blue background, over a threatening figure in a gas mask brandishing a huge weapon. Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 single “One Time’s Got No Case,” about being profiled, stopped, and questioned by racist police officers, tossed in the reference: “The cops throw me out in the street/ They found my gun like thieves/ Officer Friendly has got a new beat.” A grunge band from Rochester used the name for a couple years in the mid-1990s; more recently, on the zombie-apocalypse show The Walking Dead, characters call Rick Grimes—small-town sheriff turned violent survivalist—“Officer Friendly,” coating the words with sarcasm.

For those who’ve been subjected to police brutality or have good reason to be suspicious of authority figures, the very idea of “Officer Friendly” is absurd. But for another kind of person (white, comfortable, middle-class), the name triggers thoughts of a lost utopia of public service and well-executed community policing. Remember when police would help us find our lost dogs, pat us on the head, and send us home with a tinfoil badge? In our moment of reassessing the role of law enforcement in society, this sort of “good cop” nostalgia gets used to neutralize any critical sentiment; you can find it everywhere, from children’s entertainment like Paw Patrol and Lego to adult debates over “bad apples,” defunding, and abolition. But a look at the origins and intentions of Officer Friendly reveals the purposeful construction of that nostalgia—and suggests one reason why “copaganda” exerts such a powerful influence on the American imagination.

The Chicago Police Department launched the first official Officer Friendly program in 1966, and soon afterward, the Sears-Roebuck Foundation came on board to sponsor it. By 1979, according to the Department of Education, the Officer Friendly program was in 233 communities, serving mostly classrooms of kindergarteners through second graders, kids age 5–8. At the height of his influence in the late ’80s, Friendly’s beat was quite large indeed: In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, a program director at the Sears-Roebuck Foundation reported that the program was in 350 communities, reaching 1.5 million students, at a cost of $400,000 to the foundation.

I got a set of early Officer Friendly materials from a secondhand seller on Amazon: one children’s workbook and one “Teachers’ Resource Unit,” both sponsored by the Board of Education and Police Department of Kansas City, Missouri, and copyrighted in 1968 by the Sears-Roebuck Foundation. The workbook is full of blocky line drawings of square-jawed policemen—half of the officers pictured are white, half are Black, all are men—helping small children reunite with parents, waving from patrol cars, and answering 911 calls from worried kids. (The teachers’ book recommends making students wait until after the curriculum has concluded to do the coloring, because they’ll pay more attention that way.)

A list of 10 rules to abide by listed by Officer Friendly.
Officer Friendly rules. Sears-Roebuck Foundation

This, of course, was socialization—making children into the kinds of young adults who respected police. Tamara Gene Myers, a historian at the University of British Columbia, wrote a book about what she calls the “youth turn” in policing. “In the 19th century, the neighborhood cop wouldn’t have necessarily involved children in his work,” she said in an interview, but police at the end of the 19th century came to believe that children could be “saved” from becoming criminals—in other words, preemptively rehabilitated. This shift in thinking led to a spate of programs that were intended to proactively control juvenile delinquency, by taking what officials would call “pre-delinquents” and convincing them not to lead a “life of crime.” Scattered districts experimented with putting police liaison officers in schools as early as 1939. Other examples of the kinds of programs police departments started were Police Athletic Leagues, Police Explorers, and the “school” or “safety patrol”—a classic activity of the postwar era, where kids dressed up in uniforms and policed other kids, like “junior traffic cops.”

Traffic and traffic safety were always integral to Officer Friendly. For children in third grade, the teacher’s handbook proposed, a discussion about travel could offer a chance to talk about police officers’ jobs in directing traffic. “Decide who must take the most responsibility for their safety (the pupils themselves),” the book suggested, “and then think about the responsibility they assume when traveling to the store, school, or around the community.” The teachers’ handbook also recommends reading Policeman Small, by Lois Lenski, with the children—an adorable board book from 1962 that is about a traffic cop.

Cars became a much bigger part of American city life right around the time cops became a much bigger part of American childhood. The need to teach kids to “look both ways” or wait for the light to cross, Myers writes, created a natural opportunity for police officers to become “educators.” If this sounds like a conspiracy theory, that’s not quite it—it’s more that the increasing danger of the streets, especially for the impulsive and exuberant early-elementary-age kids right in the Officer Friendly target demographic, gave police who wanted a PR boost for other reasons a convenient opening. “They weren’t fabricating the problem,” Myers said in our interview, “but it was also this way that they were sort insinuating themselves in childhood.” Who, after all, could object to safety education?

An illustration of Officer Friendly visiting a school and its students and a teacher taking a photo.
Officer Friendly visits schoolchildren. Sears-Roebuck Foundation

Leveraging their avuncular image with little kids, police also hoped to gain public relations points in the community at large. There’s an outline of the way the program worked in Norfolk, Virginia, public schools in the 1970s in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Police officers developed lesson plans and activity books, with assistance from the schools; the Sears-Roebuck Foundation paid for teachers to make the activity books and print them. In 1976–77, officers visited the kindergarten through second grade classrooms three times. In the first visit, the Officer Friendly would show and tell their police equipment, and present slides that showed him doing normal, everyday things: watching TV with his family, feeding a baby, mowing a lawn.

Those “humanizing” slides were key to the Officer Friendly project. In a 1986 interview with the New York Times, Sears-Roebuck Foundation representative Mary Strahlendorf recalled the program’s genesis: “In the 1960s, it was a very turbulent time. Police were called names and we felt there was a need for the children to see police officers as human beings.” The police officer interviewed for the story, Felicia Perry, said that the Officers Friendly on her force were trying to counter what the kids saw on TV. “They have one of two extreme attitudes about police officers,” Perry said. “They either think we’re a superhero or we’re totally stupid.”

The television may have played a role, but the bigger problem, as Officer Friendly proponents saw it, were the kids’ families. “Remember that at the turn of the 20th century, the police’s object was to protect property,” Myers said in our interview. “So even if children in the 20th century didn’t have a direct experience of the police, what their parents or grandparents would have remembered, especially working-class people, they would remember the police being used as strikebreakers, against them. Not protecting them, or their children.”

This was another problem that midcentury programs like Officer Friendly were meant to correct. A technical assistance bulletin published by the Department of Education in 1979 for schools interested in implementing the program made it explicit: “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 1968 teacher’s handbook instructs teachers to allow students to take their own workbooks home to “share with family and friends, in order to better acquaint the child’s community with the positive efforts and contributions afforded the child as part of his classroom experiences.” Those working on the Officer Friendly program hoped that the kids would defend police officers to the older, more experienced people in their households, operating—all unawares—as junior agents for the public affairs project of Officer Friendly.

But did the program work? Did it achieve its stated goal of making children more comfortable with police? The answer seems to have been “Yes”—at least in the short term. A team of psychologists from Old Dominion University, led by Valerian J. Derlega, studied the Officer Friendly program in Norfolk, Virginia, in the mid-1970s. The psychologists evaluated second graders who had, and hadn’t, experienced the program in their classrooms. Before and after the program, the children drew a picture of a police officer and answered simple questions: “A police officer is nice. Yes or no?” Those whose classes had used the workbook were more likely to draw pictures of police helping victims: “A patrolman helping a child whose bicycle had been stolen,” “a patrolman interviewing a person whose apartment had been burglarized.”

Then, the researchers tested whether those who had a real-life Officer Friendly come into the classroom would be more comfortable near a random uniformed police officer. They brought children into a hallway and told them that an unknown police officer standing some distance away wanted to talk with them. Those who had experienced the program were more willing to stand closer to the officer than those who had not. White and Black children “improved” equally in their positive attitudes toward police, but Black children had less favorable attitudes before and after the program. As far as I can see, the researchers didn’t do a longitudinal study, asking third grade or fifth grade or seventh grade kids who had Officers Friendly in their kindergarten classrooms about their feelings toward police and comparing those kids with others who hadn’t gone through the program. But other work done around the same time found that young children’s positive affect toward policemen predictably drained away as they aged, with Black children expressing negative feelings toward police at a younger age than white kids.

Some adults remembering Officer Friendly recall the visits of those officers with affection, pointing to them as a way policing “used to be.” In the wake of the death of Laquan McDonald in Chicago in 2014, columnist Monica Holland recalled her own Officer Friendly with a kind of pointed nostalgia: “He is in heaven now, but I remember years ago when Officer Friendly came to our school. Police Officer James McDaniel was a tall handsome man who always smiled at us kids and knew us each by name … ” Holland believed that, in her school, the program worked to acclimate children to the presence of police—exactly what it was supposed to do: “As we grew into teens and young adults, seeing a police officer walking the beat or seeing a blue flashing light in our rearview mirror did not strike fear in our hearts. That is, unless we were playing hooky or driving alone with a learner’s permit. But that is not the case today.”

But adults’ memories aren’t always sunny, and some remember Officer Friendly with a vague sense of unease. Scott Reeder, writing in 2019, remembered “Officer Friendly,” “in his pressed blue uniform,” telling a group of second graders about a kid he arrested for stealing a Hershey bar, who couldn’t find a job as an adult because he had a “permanent record.” As a commenter on a Facebook group post reminiscing about the Officer Friendly program in D.C. noted, “I remember Officer Friendly used to come from 1st to 4th grade, teaching us that the police were our friends. … Then, in 5th grade, it went from ‘I am your friend’ to ‘I am not to be trifled with.’ That is a very jarring experience.” Reflecting on all of the examples of 20th century police youth work she’s studied, Tamara Gene Myers underscored that disconnect: “There’s this feeling of protection and benevolence, until. ‘I’ll protect you, as long as you’re on the right side.’ ”

That students’ workbook from 1968 ends with the “Officer Friendly Rules”—10 of them, starting with “Play in your yard” and “Play on the playground,” and ending with “Be a friendly helper in school” and (ominously) “Be my friend, always.” The teacher’s handbook suggests the teacher ask children to state a single concept about Officer Friendly while taking attendance. One of the possible concepts they could have learned in the course of the classes: “All police officers are friendly, if we are friendly.”

Officer Friendly, as a program, isn’t completely gone, but it’s got nowhere near the coverage it had in the 1970s and 1980s. The Sears-Roebuck Foundation announced in February 1990 that it would no longer be funding the national Officer Friendly program; a representative told the Deseret News that “it’s hard to justify continuing to give it the same support when the community and government sector could and should support the program.” The foundation handed the copyright, logo, and trademark to the Utah Council for Crime Prevention, which had run the program in Utah schools for 12 years. Other localities would need to pay for the program’s implementation.

Today, Hampton, Virginia, still has the program, along with Jacksonville, Florida, and Green Bay, Wisconsin, according to reporting by Eric Easter of Urban News Service. In 2018, coverage of the retirement of a police officer in Vernon, Connecticut, Michelle Landry, who had been an Officer Friendly far later than most—between 2014–18—noted that she “revamped” the program, bringing in elements of the D.A.R.E. anti-drug curriculum and mixing them with “topics like bullying, ‘drama’ between peers, and dealing with strangers.” And a present-day Houston police officer working in the department’s Office of Public Affairs–Community Outreach Unit, Jeremy Lahar, self-publishes a book series using the character name; one of the books in the series addresses children’s fear of police. But since the Columbine shootings in 1999, police presence in schools has increasingly come in the form of the school resource officer—a contested figure, who, like the Officers Friendly of years past, is supposed to make kids feel “safe” but whose presence in a school often leads to increased student arrests, suspensions, and expulsions.

Despite his semiretirement from schoolhouses, Officer Friendly continues to patrol our collective memory. Criminology scholar Delores D. Jones-Brown invokes Norman Rockwell’s 1958 painting for the Saturday Evening Post The Runaway as “the quintessential image of officer friendly.” This illustration features a white boy on a stool at a diner, bindle at the base of his stool, shoulder to shoulder with a police officer, who’s clearly gently persuading him to go home and make amends with his family. “The author has often wondered how the scene might be different if the youthful perpetrator were Black,” Jones-Brown wrote.

You don’t have to look far to find contemporaneous images to situate alongside The Runaway to make this point. In 1965, Anthony Quin was 5, right in the Officer Friendly target demographic. He and his mother, Aylene Quin, of McComb, Mississippi, were on the steps of the state Capitol after seeking an audience with the state’s governor to protest violations of voting rights. (They were turned away.) Matt Herron, a photographer who was in attendance, saw a highway patrolman, Hughie Kohler, approach Anthony. Herron wrote that he heard Anthony’s mother say, “Anthony, don’t let that man take your flag.” Herron’s photograph is of an officer in uniform wresting away the symbol of promised freedom away from a child who holds onto it fiercely—a child so small, the elastic waistband of his pants will break your heart.

This image, as much as any cop-car show and tell, represents the historical truth of children’s encounters with police in this country. It is not a truth that fits well into the mythos of Officer Friendly and its story of a lost past of protected childhoods, when kids were kept safe by police instead of being handcuffed, roughed up, and suspended from school. But it’s the truth nonetheless. The program sold a fictional story of community authority, a utopian dream of good policing—in theory, perhaps an ideal to pursue, in practice, copaganda for the youngest among us.