Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: the costs of inequity

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 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.


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

At left two Kansas City PD officers hold up a sign that reads, "End police brutality!" At right KCPD Chief Rick Smith and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd, while holding up an "I can't breathe" T-shirt

Crossing the line

The phrase “crossing the line” has a special resonance for me today. 

Crossing a deadly line

Like many metro areas in the United States over the recent weekend, mine saw day after day of large, mostly peaceful crowds demonstrating in the streets. The protesters came out to decry the actions of four Minneapolis police officers who slowly (it took almost nine minutes), publicly, murdered a man in the street by kneeling on his neck and back. 

Protesters hold signs and give speeches at a march for justice in Kansas City
Nareen Stokes, mother of Ryan Stokes, a local man killed by police, speaks to the then-peaceful crowd in Mill Creek Park near the Kansas City Country Club Plaza. (Photo by Carlos Moreno. Many thanks to KCUR Kansas City).

That’s a deadly example of “crossing the line” that should never, ever be condoned. But that kind of “crossing the line”–extra-rough treatment of people from certain neighborhoods, with a certain skin color–by police happens all too often

Is there a systemic racism problem, or is it just a whole lot of unfortunate, isolated incidents? How you answer that question probably depends on your background, experiences and race. There’s even disagreement among police. Black officers see more of a problem than white officers, in recent polling.

Certainly, the officers in the George Floyd case crossed a line, although getting charges and convictions will be difficult. This wasn’t the first time Officer Derek Chauvin, the neck-kneeler, got in trouble for mistreating citizens, although one hopes it is the last.

Why do police officers cross those ethical lines? 

Anyone who has followed my blog for any length of time knows I’m not a hater of the police. I’m concerned about their well-beinginspired by their service, and generally convinced that we’d be in a world of hurt without them. I write novels about (mostly) admirable law enforcement officers, and I do my level best to extrapolate realistically into my futuristic world.

A poster available on Amazon lists danger signs of officer stress
A poster available on Amazon lists danger signs of officer stress, and management cues. (image courtesy of Police Posters on Amazon).

But people are people. While most applicants go into law enforcement with good motives, no profession is populated solely by angels. And although many seek an exciting career, police work may be more than they bargained for. The job gives officers a front-row seat on more trauma and ugliness than most civilians would see in several dozen lifetimes.

Wounded, traumatized people can grow callous or violent. A persistent old-school police culture further tends to ignore the advice of psychologists about dealing with stress. Instead, there’s pressure to “suck it up” and get on with the job. To self-medicate for depression or stress with alcohol or other substancesNobody does their best work while drugged.

Crossing other lines

Unfortunately, I need to get back to those protests I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Because although during the day most protesters peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights, things changed at night. 

Night after night, rioters have vandalized, looted, and burned businesses and carsIt happened here in Kansas City, and in many other cities, too. One shocking casualty that hit the science fiction community extra-hard was the loss of the legendary Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore in Minneapolis.

It’s as if the transition from day to night turned people mean. In part, it seemed to become a self-fulfilling cycle. Authorities imposed curfews, in an effort to prevent violence. Police attempted to disperse crowds, in many cases using tear gas or pepper spray. Angry protesters fought back, and all hell broke loose.

After dark, the protests turned uglier. A Kansas City PD vehicle burns on Saturday night.
After dark, the protests turned uglier. A Kansas City PD vehicle burns on Saturday night, May 30, 2020. (Many thanks to Fox 4 News for this photo).

I think a lot of us would echo Terrence Floyd’s plea, “Let’s do this another way,” besides destruction. Yet it is important to pay attention to the roots of the contemporary violence. If riots are the language of the unheard,” we all owe it to ourselves to listen. And also to pay enough attention to discern between angry, fed-up people and calculating opportunists.

A better kind of line-crossing

But I’d like to close this post on a brighter note. For all the anger on display, for all the ugliness after nightfall, and for all the brutality being protested, there were moments of positive “line-crossing.” Of police officers taking a knee, joining a march, and reaching across barricades. And there were more of them than I recall having seen in past rounds of protests.

They, too, were mostly appalled at the way George Floyd died. Police forces in most of our cities are engaged in a long, slow effort to reform relations with their communities of color. There are a lot of fences to mend. A lot of history to overcome. That’s why people are in the streets–again. Too many times, police officers have crossed that line in the wrong ways.

At left two Kansas City PD officers hold up a sign that reads, "End police brutality!" At right KCPD Chief Rick Smith and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd, while holding up an "I can't breathe" T-shirt
Possible signs of change in Kansas City? At left two Kansas City PD officers hold up a sign that reads, “End police brutality!” At right KCPD Chief Rick Smith and Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas kneel for a moment of silence for George Floyd, while holding up an “I can’t breathe” T-shirt. (Photos courtesy of Forbes, via Twitter and Katie Moore/Kansas City Star).

That needs to change. Our communities are calling for it. Police departments surely know it can’t continue this way, and some places appear to be doing better

Let’s nurture that change. Let’s find ways to encourage and reinforce itIt’s time for crossing the line of division, and reaching out toward healing.


Many thanks to KCUR Kansas City and photographer Carlos Moreno, for the photo from Nareen Stokes’s speech. Police stress poster image courtesy of Police Posters on Amazon. Many thanks to Fox 4 News for the photo from Saturday night. Photos of connections between police and community are courtesy of Forbes, via Twitter and Katie Moore/Kansas City Star. I appreciate all of you!

Celebrate Women’s Equality Day

The Artdog Image of Interest

Yes, I know we normally have a Quote of the Week on Mondays, but this is Women’s Equality Day, so I thought the infographic was more appropriate.Women have a long history of being considered less-than-equal to men. Here are some points to consider:


From Visually.

IMAGE: many thanks to Elite Research, via Visually, for this infographic.

7 facts illustrating the discrimination against women in science

The Artdog Image of Interest

Very few women in the world today have any question that gender-based discrimination exists. Everything from loud, in-your-face sexism or violent physical aggression to the softer forms of diminished expectations and subtle direction away from riskier, higher-profile, leadership, or more lucrative options. 

We’ve all seen at least some of it, but we don’t often see it diagrammed out. The focus here is science, but no field is immune. Imagine the expanded potential if women could achieve parity!

This infographic is titled "Seven facts illustrating the discrimination against women in science." It lists: 1. Women make up only 28% of all research personnel in the world. 2. Women are under-represented in research and development posts in all parts of the world (it shows a map of the continents with the percentages of women on each: the Americas, North and South, 32%; Spain, 39%; Central and Eastern Europe, 40%; Sub-Saharan Africa, 30%; Southern and Eastern Asia, 19%; and Central Asia 32%. 3. Only 1 in every 5 countries has achieved gender parity, that is a situation in which between 45% and 55% of research personnel are women. 4. In Spain (where the graphic was made), the percentage of female scientists decreases as researchers move up the career ladder. Doctoral students, 5 out of 10 are women--gender parity. Management positions, only 2 in 20 are women--glass ceiling. 5. Only 7% of 15-year-old girls in Spain want to pursue a technical profession, compared with 21% of boys. Numerous barriers prevent women from considering and pursuing a scientific career: stereotypes and biases affecting girls; greater demands of family. 6. Only 3% of the Nobel prizes for sciences have gone to women since these prizes were first awarded in 1901. 7. The problem is so obvious that the European research area has made gender equality one of its five highest priorities.

IMAGE: Many thanks to IS Global Barcelona Institute for Global Health, for this infographic.

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