Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: Police culture

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.

Several signs promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

Rethinking policing on Rana Station

Rethinking policing has always been an important part of my world-building  for the futuristic world of my science fiction novels. Recent protests and calls to abolish or defund the police have given me fresh material to work with. But they haven’t changed my plans for the series.

Jan S. Gephardt’s current “XK9” books are “The Other Side of Fear,” and “What’s Bred in the Bone.”
At the time this post went live, these were the “XK9 books” available. Cover art for The Other Side of Fear is © 2020 by Lucy A. Synk; Cover art for What’s Bred in the Bone is © 2019 by Jody A. Lee.

Balancing reality and fiction

One of the joys of speculative fiction is that you get to make up your own world. That makes it possible to explore all sorts of thought experiments. How would this or that work out, if this or that other thing happened? The challenge that comes with the joy is making your world believable.

I wanted to combine my love of science fiction, dogs, and mystery stories into a science fiction series. 

But I couldn’t assert spontaneously sapient, talking dogs (sure, that’s believable . . . or is it?). No, they’d need to be engineered and equipped. Most people probably wouldn’t do that for a pet. Contemporary smart dogs are already sometimes too smart for their own good. Plus it would be expensive, and take a long time. My fictional dogs needed a job that required the development. I already knew I wanted to write a mystery in this futuristic settingso K9s–police dogs–were a natural choice

A German Shepherd places its paws on a computer keyboard in a police station office. The meme reads, "Saw bad man, bit same. End of Report."
They aren’t using computers yet, but dogs are smarter than we think. (GSCSafety/Donna Clayton/Pinterest)

I set my story on a space-based megastructure built on designs actual rocket scientists thought might work. My canine-cognition, robotics, and other research led me to other extrapolations. I hoped I’d figured it out so my readers could suspend their disbelief, and enjoy the story.

Reality and fiction in policing for Rana Station

But how to portray the police? I knew from the start that TV and movies were no guide. They tend to show cops as good-guy protagonists. They’re frequently wildly erroneous.They often glorify, erase, or excuse terrible misconduct for the sake of drama. 

My original goal was to portray a style of policing that a real police officer could read and think, “yes, this is right. This is how it really works.” 

Never having been a police officer or worked in that world, I had a lot of learning to do. But the more I’ve learned about the way it really worksthe less I think it fits with the rest of how Rana Station is conceived

Several signs held by protesters promote a growing push to defund and demilitarize the police.

The society on Rana Station is yet another thought experiment. This one is steeped in my roots as a teacher in urban schools. I built it on understandings from working on my Master’s degree in Multicultural Education. As one of my characters says in a later chapter of What’s Bred in the Bone, Rana’s “governmental aim is to support the realization of each and every inhabitant-being’s full potential.”

The rest of the surrounding universe looks more like systems we’re unfortunately familiar with. In some ways Ranans themselves don’t live up to their ideals. In others, they do better. Part of the fun is speculating about what might happen when social systems, values, and priorities collide.

Rethinking crime 

One thing about humans: crimes happen. People screw up. They fight. Greed gets the best of them. Con artists run their scams. Passions rise, and sometimes people die. There are plenty of cases to solve, even on Rana Station

But a society built on respect for everyone, and dedicated to supporting their achieving full potential, isn’t going to criminalize many of the things our society uses the police to address.

Members of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Department Forensics Team and St. Petersburg Police gather evidence at a murder scene in St. Petersburg, FL in 2017.
When murders occur, they must be investigated. Members of the Pinellas Sheriff’s Department Forensics Team and St. Petersburg Police gather evidence at a murder scene in St. Petersburg, FL in 2017. (Uncredited/Tampa Bay Times)

Addiction isn’t illegal on Rana Station. People can have small quantities of controlled substances. But authorities regulate potentially dangerous substances and try to stifle smugglingSapient-trafficking is illegal pretty much everywhere (but which beings are sapient?).

Digital thievery plagues everyone. Rana’s “second-story men” (and women) sometimes intrude on residence towers. As in Chapter One of What’s Bred in the Bone, people sometimes get mugged.

Assaults, rapes, and murders do still occur (although there are lots more conflict mediation efforts on Rana Station than in the USA right now).

And the XK9s, along with their human allies, are on the case.

Rethinking policing in more ways than one

But a social system designed to support every inhabitant-being reaching their full potential would not look like our reality. That means not only is the agriculture different. The schools are different. Ranan mental and physical health-care infrastructure is different (to name just a few).
And Ranan policing is different, too.

Today’s “defund” advocates demand some changes that already were planned features on Rana Station. Even before our collective consciousness raising on police use of force. For instance, police won’t be the first responders called for most mental health crises. Mental health professionals called “Listeners” will. Many current “de-criminalize” issues are handled outside of the justice system on Rana.

Police prepare to clear a camp set up by people experiencing homelessness in San Francisco, in 2017.
The criminalization of poverty reaches an extreme when it comes to people experiencing homelessness. Police prepare to clear a “homeless” camp in San Francisco, in 2017. (Judith Calson/San Francisco Public Press)

Readers of What’s Bred in the Bone may recall that the Orangeboro Police Department has a STAT Team (for “Special Tools and Techniques”). I originally called them a “SWAT” Team, but “Special Weapons and Tactics” recalls the old-fashioned militarized unit of contemporary practice. That’s not what I intend to portray.

In very special circumstances some SWAT-like tactics may be needed. Think sharpshooters, or psychologist-trained negotiators. But Ranan STAT teams also embrace what we think of as search-and-rescue,  bomb squads and communications and surveillance specialists. They’re known for saving lives, not kicking doors.

Rethinking police mental and physical health

One major area where my police research appalled me is the real world of police officer/first-responder stress. Rather than write in generalities, I’ll share a summary of an all-too-typical case study. This one’s from the March 2016 AA Grapevine, but unfortunately none of it seemed unusual, or out of step with other cases I’ve studied. 


Erika J.’s story

The writer was a young woman who’d wanted to be a police officer since she was in high school. Right at the start of her first rookie year she had a “suicide by cop” call. Although it was devastating, she felt compelled to “lie my butt off” to the department psychologist so she wouldn’t lose her job

There are so many wrong things, just in that one element of her story.

From the beginning, this young employee understood if she was honest she’d be fired (like most people, she needed her job). She didn’t feel supported, and that pattern continued. Later promoted to detective, she was “the only police officer in town assigned to juvenile cases.” Not surprisingly, the caseload overwhelmed her. She asked for a reassignment after six years, unsure how many more autopsies of abused babies she could handle. Her request was denied.

So she “boarded out” and qualified for a promotion. Later, as a now-sergeant with a 3-month-old breastfeeding infant, they denied a reassignment that would make it easier to care for her baby. “I was told to quit whining and do my job.” There’s more. But if you’re like me you’ve seen enough already. It’s really not surprising this woman developed a problem with alcoholism. The way she was treated–by her brothers (and sisters?) in blue–ought to be criminal.

Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean does paperwork.
Stress and feelings of isolation can build up for cops if they’re not given adequate support. Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean does paperwork. Only 5% of South Dakota officers are female. (Sean Ryan/Republic)

So many wrong things

Instead, it’s not uncommon. She probably got more grief because she was a woman (way to diversify, people!!). But male officers don’t get much less pressure. That old-school police culture is toxic, no matter who’s on the receiving end. As other pressures in society build virulence, police officer suicides have hit an upward trend.

Cops also work long hours with few breaks and little access to healthy food. That’s why you see so many fat officers after they’ve been on the job for a while. They’re usually not so much lazy as stressed-out and overextended. You won’t be surprised that police officers are at 30-70% more risk of sudden cardiac arrest than others, when thrown into stressful situations.

It’s not an acceptable reason, but it’s easy to see how some officers grow jaded, callous, or abusive. That kind of job environment is practically a formula for inappropriately-displaced aggression. Give that human powder-keg a racist system to work in, a history of oppression, and a gun, and you have a police brutality offense just looking for some “uppity” brown-skinned person to trigger it. 

Rethinking policing in a better way

Ranan culture doesn’t put up with any of these ways of doing things. They are stupid, counter-productive, and deeply destructive. Excuse me while I’m “unrealistic,” and explore a better way.

We need to ask why our own contemporary society puts up with those stupid, destructive ways of doing things. Must we abolish the police and start over from scratch to get rid of rampant, racist old-school police culture? If so, it might be a better way of rethinking policing than many people believe.

IMAGE CREDITS:

The covers of my books are from my Jan S. Gephardt’s Artdog Adventures website. Many thanks to Greater St. Cloud Public Safety Foundation, via Donna Clayton’s Pinterest Board, for the K9-making-a-report meme. I’m grateful to The Hill, for the photo of the “defund” protesters. Many thanks to the Tampa Bay Times for the photo of the murder scene investigation. I am grateful to Judith Calson of the San Francisco Public Press, for the photo of the police outside the “homeless camp.” and thanks also to the Mitchell (SD) Republic and photographer Sean Ryan for the photo of Mitchell, SD Police Officer Mici Bolgrean at work.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén