Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Mental health

Covers for Jan's three "Cops in Space" books, "The Other Side of Fear," "What's Bred in the Bone," and "A Bone to PIck."

What should police do?

By Jan S. Gephardt

We rarely think to ask a fundamental question: what should police do? What part should they play in a multicultural, representational democracy? The ubiquity of police forces around the world argues that many societies believe police do have a role in civilized life. But what – exactly – should it be?

As a novelist whose primary characters are science fictional detectives, I am in an unusual position, both to ask and to answer this question. But I believe it’s also a question everyone should ask. Especially every citizen in a representational, multicultural democracy.

Why should we ask? Isn’t the answer to that question obvious? Well, no. We’ve all grown up “pre-loaded” with conscious and unconscious attitudes and understandings of what police officers and police forces do, and why they exist. But clearly, those seldom-examined attitudes and understandings aren’t leading to very good outcomes. Not in much of the world. And certainly not here in the United States.

"Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They've got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law." - Barack Obama.
Many thanks to BrainyQuote.

Asking as a Novelist

One of the best things science fiction does is hold up a mirror to society. If you think about it, all fiction does that in a certain way, because all fiction is a reflection of our experiences of life. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the novelist in society. And yes, a fundamental aspect of our work is purely to produce entertainment.

But it’s not the only aspect. I would (and frequently do) argue that it may not even be the most important aspect, particularly in the realm of science fiction. That’s because science fiction is all about thought experiments.

When we start asking “what if?” a whole multiverse of possibilities opens up. What if a recent scientific discovery led to a new technological breakthrough? How would that change the world we live in? What if our society continues on its current course in this aspect, what might the future look like? How would our world change? How would we react?

So, as a novelist who writes about police in a future society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams." - Alexis Wright.
Thanks again, BrainyQuote!

Asking as a Citizen

But I’m also a citizen: of the world, and also specifically of my country and community. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a member of “the public.” I can be sliced and diced out and defined demographically, culturally, and any other way you choose. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Woman. Educated. Teacher (retired). Middle class. United Methodist. White. Senior citizen. Democrat. Science fiction fangirl. Creative person. Animal lover. Multiculturalist. I am all of those things and more.

And as that complex, multi-aspect creature, I bring all of my experiences, understandings, and biases into my role as a responsible adult in contemporary society. For me, that involves an active interest in news and politics. I have formed some rather strong opinions over the course of my life. Each day I refine them or adjust them or reinforce them as I receive and process information.

I see it as my right – indeed, my responsibility – as a citizen to ask if my government and community leaders are representing me and governing in a way I think is appropriate. Are they respecting and honoring values I share? If they’re not, then I have a right to question them, and to seek better representation. As do we all.

This means, as a citizen in contemporary society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition." - Letitia James
You’re now 3-0, BrainyQuote!

What Do We Ask Police To Do?

We currently ask police to fill a wide range of roles. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a 2016 interview by the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

I tend to agree with Chief Brown. As a teacher, I learned all too much about the many things our communities want to dump in the laps of their public servants. Usually while also underpaying them, restricting their operating budgets, and asking them to do work they never trained or signed up for. I get it, and I agree.

But what problems are the police meant to solve? Unlike some observers on the leftward end of the spectrum, I do believe there is a role for police in society. Unlike some observers on the rightward end of the spectrum, I don’t believe we will ever be well served by our current system. Certainly not when it’s focused on criminalizing poverty and mental illness. Not when it majors on crackdowns on minority populations and small offenders. And certainly not when it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

This graph charts United States crime clearance rates in 2020, the most recent year for which the statistics are available. “Murder and nonnegligent homicide:54.4%. Aggravated assault: 46.6%. Violent crime: 41.7%. Rape: 30.6%. Robbery: 28.8%. Arson: 21.5%. Larceny-theft: 15.1%. Property crime: 14.6%. Burglary: 14.%. Motor vehicle theft: 12.3%”
Graphic ©2023 by Statistia.

What Problems WERE Police Meant to Solve?

If you were to ask the average “person on the street” this question, they’d probably say “Solve crimes,” or maybe “keep public order,” or perhaps “enforce the law.” Fair enough. So, how well are they doing?

Let’s take that first one, “solve crimes.” A look at the crime clearance rates (percentages of crimes that are cleared in a given year) is downright discouraging. “Clearance rate,” by the way, does not mean the full Law & Order-style litany of captured, charged, tried, and convicted. No, “clearance” means at least one person has been arrested and charged, or it means the probable perpetrator(s) are identified, but outside circumstances make arresting and charging them impossible. For two examples, circumstances could include that they died. Or maybe they’re in another country from which we can’t extradite them. Stuff does happen sometimes.

Clearance rates vary by the type of crime. But according to Statistia.com the only type that gets solved more than half the time in the USA is “murder and non-negligent homicide.” The clearance rate for that is 54.4%.

Flunking Crime-Solving

Think about it. That’s only a bit better than a 50-50 chance that any given murder will be solved. If I were grading a test and my student made a 54.4% on it, their grade would be an F (On a normal grading scale, 0-60% = an F). And that’s the best they do! You want them to solve your burglary? Sorry to tell you, but you have only a 14% chance that the perpetrator will be caught and charged with the crime. Someone stole your truck? Oh, dear. You only have a 12.3% chance they’ll ever arrest the thief.

So, basically, police in the United States flunk at crime-solving. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and many of them are tied up in the other answers to the question “What should police do?”

"When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe." - Mary Frances Berry
Thanks yet again, BrainyQuote!

What Should Police Do to “Serve and Protect”?

What does “keep public order,” “enforce the law,” or “protect people” look like, when it’s happening? Does “keeping public order” mean bulldozing camps of unhoused persons? Or imposing a curfew on a small population’s free movement during a specific part of the day or in a specific place? Does it mean beating or injuring protesters? The words “keeping public order” have been used to justify all of those actions.

On the other hand, it also could mean directing traffic away from an accident. Maybe it means repelling a violent insurrection from the Capitol. And it could mean shielding a person who has not been convicted of any crime from a lynch mob that wants to kill them. It’s an umbrella phrase, broad and nonspecific enough to be both used and abused.

Standards Without Clarification

And in the end, it’s not a very helpful standard without further clarification. The seemingly obvious “protect people” brings the same host of issues when we try to apply it to specific cases. Which people are the police to protect? From whom or what? In a racist, sexist society (don’t kid yourself: that’s this one), how many ways could that go wrong?

“Enforce the law” is only deceptively “more specific.” Does that mean “enforce all the laws, all the time?” By that standard, most of us should be, or should have been, arrested at many points in our lives.

People are fallible. There are times when we’re sick and can’t cut the noxious weeds in our front yard. Or we’re forgetful and only notice later that our driver’s license has expired. Perhaps we’re tired or in a hurry, so we jaywalked when we saw an opening, instead of walking down to the corner and waiting for the lights to change. Minor traffic violations, legally carrying a gun, or simply walking down the street have resulted in citizens being killed by police in the name of “enforcing the law.”

"Accountability for police officers should be an expectation, not an aberration." - Alex Padilla
You rock, BrainyQuote!

Okay, so: What SHOULD Police Do?

As we’ve seen, that’s a really problematic question! But, both as a citizen and as a novelist, I want to find better answers to it. I cannot endorse a blanket approach such as “abolish the police.” I’m not a fan of “defund,” either. Neither of those represent where I think this conversation should go.

On the other hand, a thoroughgoing interrogation of that “what should police do?” question isn’t going to deal kindly with old-school “cop culture.” Not with many contemporary police training techniques and approaches, either. Nor even with a fair number of contemporary laws and standards.

Yes, dear reader, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m cueing up a series of blog posts on this topic. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Considering our upcoming publication schedule, it most definitely won’t be every single post for the next umpty-dozen times without a break!

But over the next few months, I propose to take up one aspect of “what should police do?” at a time. I’ll examine how it’s currently being handled in the USA, survey the critiques, and then explain “how we handle it on Rana Station” and why I think that might work better. I hope you’ll find the series interesting.

IMAGE CREDITS

Many thanks to BrainyQuote (what would I have done without you for this post?) and Statistia.

This illustration shows many diverse ages, races, and cultures.

Politics on Rana Station

In last week’s post I promised to talk about politics on Rana Station this week. As I said in that post, I built the Station’s system on ideas garnered from decades of teaching, studying history, and observing our contemporary society.

Those experiences inspired the guiding question, What kind of environment would allow ALL of my students to reach their full potential?

Three children play in an outdoors setting with found objects.
Natural spaces offer many free-play options, which are good for kids. (uncredited photo from Community Playthings)

I’ve spent most of my career teaching both urban and rural students from lower-income areas. I knew our current system definitely wasn’t cutting it.

But the more I studied, the clearer it became that the problems were bigger than schools.

Children do well where everyone around them does too

Thriving children come from thriving communities with good safety nets and essential needs provided for. Unfortunately, the United States doesn’t have such a system. The Covid-19 pandemic has made that fact plainer than ever, and it was already painfully clear to anyone paying attention.

Members of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrate at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020.
Members of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrate at a Black Lives Matter rally in June 2020. (Photo by Maria Khrenova/TASS/Getty, via Yes Magazine.)

When I taught in more well-off parts of Johnson County, Kansas, I saw places where many students did succeed. Those kids were never hungry. Most had excellent medical care. Their families enriched their backgrounds with travel, summer camp, outings museums, zoos, concerts, or other experiences.

Children still sometimes “fell through the cracks,” often for the same reasons inner-city or rural kids did. Only about 5.3% of Johnson Countians fall below the poverty line, but for those who do, services are sparse and mass-transit leaves much to be desired. But even kids from well-off homes could suffer from mental health issues, domestic violence, or drug habits that impacted all aspects of their lives.

How could Rana Station do better?

I didn’t build my fictitious space station to be a political manifesto. I knew from the start that I couldn’t geek out on “mastery learning,” decriminalization of addiction, restorative justice, or other pet ideas, and still write an entertaining science fiction mystery. (Instead, I opted to do that in blog posts. You’ve now been warned!)

A protester demonstrates in support of supervised injection sites in Philadelphia in December 2019.
A protester demonstrates in support of supervised injection sites in Philadelphia in December 2019. (Matt Rourke/AP, via Baltimore Sun.)

But I could write the station’s governmental system into the background of the action as a thought experiment. Insert ideas as they became appropriate. Discard things that slowed the narrative.

What’s different on Rana Station?

As I noted last week, I don’t believe in utopias. There’s no possibility of a “perfect system,” if it’s run by imperfect beings—and everyone’s an imperfect being. But we can try to do better than whatever our current system has become. That’s what I’ve tried to reflect in the politics on Rana Station.

I do believe strongly that diverse cultures foster a more resilient society, so I’ve tried to depict a variety of cultures and species in these books. There are four different kinds of sapient beings among Rana’s citizens.

Faces of different ages, races, and cultures fill this illustration by "Franzidraws."
I believe a diverse community builds in greater creativity and resilience. (Illustration by “Franzidraws.”)

Ranan law and civic culture regards all backgrounds, body-colorations, family configurations, and cultures as equally acceptable. Readers of my two currently-published books know there’s no stigma attached to homosexuality. I have plans to expand that to other gender identities as well. My research goes forward, and as I learn, I hope to find good opportunities for representation.

My love of diversity “outs” me as a dedicated multiculturalist. Just don’t expect all this diversity not to generate differences of opinion. After all, emotions and conflict are the soul of good fiction.

Other than diverse sapient species, what’s different?

Many of the human characters live in large, extended families of relatives, in-laws, and sometimes friends who’ve become “family by choice.” Their residence towers are multi-household dwellings, kind of like an apartment building, only everyone’s a relative. Space to grow food is at a premium on Rana, so they build up, not out.

How do these large, extended families keep from killing each other? In part, cultural norms have grown up to govern “best practices” in extended-family dwellings. But some people just don’t thrive in these settings. They are free to move out—or sometimes the family decides to evict them. And for disagreements or mediation, they have Listeners.

A child psychologist and a young girl talk.
Listeners on Rana Station are trained mental health specialists. Here, a more Earthbound child psychologist and a young girl talk.(Photo by Valerii Honcharuk.)

Listeners are trained psychologists and social workers. Like physicians and other physical-health-care professionals, They make up part of the health care infrastructure. Unlike in our contemporary USA, mental and physical health care is viewed as a universal right. So are access to food, education, and shelter.

What kind of system do the politics on Rana Station reflect?

Rana’s list of basic rights might seem to peg me as a socialist for some, although that would technically be incorrect. In my opinion, these are basic infrastructure elements that any reasonable government should provide.

A system that doesn’t supply essential benefits to the people who support it with their votes and taxes is pretty darn corrupt, in my opinion. Why have it, if it doesn’t benefit all of its citizens, including those experiencing hard times?

People gather around a raised bed at a community garden in Oakland, CA.
Unlike in the United States, food insecurity is virtually unknown on Rana Station. Here, a group gathers at the Acta no Verba Garden in Oakland, CA. (photo by Leonor Hurtado).

My sympathy for restorative justice and Summerhill-type “free schooling” might make some think I’m an anarchist at heart, but that’s not my philosophical home. Observant folk might also notice I didn’t “abolish” the Orangeboro Police Department, among other things.

The presence of a vigorous business community and varied personal-income levels on Rana Station might argue that I’m a capitalist. That’s probably accurate, although I regard capitalism in much the same way I do fire: uncontrolled, it can consume and destroy everything. Appropriately regulated, it can power widespread benefits.

Politics on Rana Station, and unintended consequences

If Rana sounds like a nice place to live, it might suit you in the way its founders (both fictional and me) hoped. But that warning about utopias holds, here.

The system has its weak links, failures, and faults. The Orangeboro cops and their counterparts on other parts of the Station find plenty of work to do. “Enemies, both foreign and domestic,” keep Rana’s leaders busy, as well.

And they open up lots of opportunities for stories I hope you and I can both enjoy.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Many thanks to Community Playthings, for the uncredited photo of the children at play. I’m grateful to Yes Magazine and photographer Maria Khrenova of TASS/Getty Images for the photo of White Coats for Black Lives demonstrators in New York last summer (June 2020). I appreciate the Baltimore Sun and photographer Matt Rourke/AP for the photo of the demonstrator who called for safe drug-use sites in Philadelphia last December (2019).

Thanks very much to 123RF for the “diverse community” illustration by Franzidraws, and for the photo of the psychologist working with the young girl, taken by Valerii Honcharuk. I also appreciate Food First and photographer Leonor Hurtado, for the photo of the community garden group from Oakland, CA.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén