Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Tag: USA 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.

Disorders

This post is late, and it will have to be short. Disorders of several sorts have beset close family members in recent days, and as a result a certain level of chaos reigns. When such things happen in our personal lives, we may feel as if we’ve been run over.

Photo by Ryan M. Kelly – The Daily Progress/AP

But actually being run over is much, much worse. We have glimpsed recent new horror (including synagogue congregants, holed up in fear while Nazis marched outside in American streets) in Charlottesville, VA, where “all sides” did not contribute to the public disorder in equal measure, no matter who desperately wishes to believe otherwise.

AP Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Anger does beget anger. Confederate monuments and statues all across the country have become targets in reaction to the white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Image source: WNCN-TV video screenshot, via The Blaze.

In such an environment it’s difficult not to wonder if the world has gone mad–or if perhaps we have. Patience is hard to find. Perspective is hard to find. Just as it’s hard to keep one’s head in a mob, so it’s hard to keep one’s eyes on core values.

But that is our current national test.

IMAGES: Many thanks to CNN, photographer Ryan M. Kelly of The Daily Progress and AP for the photo of the horrific impact of a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters in Charlottesville, to Los Angeles ABC Channel 7, Pablo Martinez Monsivais and AP for the photo of President Trump making a statement about Charlottesville, and to The Blaze and WNCN-TV for a pictorial article about the destruction of a confederate monument in Durham, North Carolina.

Post-election burnout? Here’s help!

ragged-flagWow. It’s over. Are you feeling a little ragged, this morning?

We are now living in the wake of one of the most divisive, dysfunctional presidential-election cycles most of us can remember. Psychologists even talked about “election stress disorder,” while the madness continued, and worried about the very real havoc it wreaked on people’s peace of mind.

However you feel about the results, the nastiness didn’t just stay at the top of the ticket. Down-ballot races often seemed at least as mean-spirited and angry. What is worse, partisan divisions have begun to inspire a lot of mistrust, rancor, and in some cases downright hatred between everyday people all around us. People we may once have seen as “my neighbor,” or “my cousin” many of us now see as “us” and “them.”

But the election’s over. The votes are cast, for well or ill. The seemingly wall-to-wall political ads have finally ended, thank God. Now comes the hard part: living with what we have wrought.

I’m not talking about the politicians, or who’ll be in the White House come January. I’m talking about my fellow Americans. How do we suck it up and start speaking to each other again? 

Our nation’s fate and future depend on our being able to do that. We’re going to have to act like rational adults, and stop casting aspersions on each others’ intelligence and morality. Can we ever be positive thinkers again? Should we even try?

The short-term advice is not to talk about the election results too much, or think too hard on what you learned about the other person’s politics in recent months. But straight-up denial isn’t a winning plan, either. Sooner or later, facts must be dealt with.

But when the facts are inconvenient or unfavorable from your point of view, what do you have left?

Can we muster the hope?

Can we afford not to try?

IMAGES: Many thanks to the “4th of July” Pinterest Page for the “ragged flag” photo–but relax. It’s not really a shredded flag. It’s a decoration made from strips of cloth and lace. Many thanks to the Pinterest board, “Workplace Quotes,” for the Negative/Positive quote, and to “The Teenager Quotes” on Tumblr via the “Positive Quotes” Pinterest board for the quote about dealing with an addiction to negativity. Many thanks also to the “Work Hard” Pinterest Page for the “no matter the situation” quote. Last but not least, many thanks to the “Positive Thinking” Pinterest Page for the “Hope is stronger” quote.

The Pot and the Bowl

Artdog Image(s) of Interest 

We often hear that the United States is a great big melting pot, where immigrants come from all over and get assimilated, so that they can become Americans. As you can see from the style of the image above, this idea has been around for a while.

This “melting pot” idea assumes the cultural differences will get melted right out, and we’ll all turn into generic Americans. Everybody will share the same cultural references, speak English, and leave the Old Country behind.

It’s balderdash, of course. People don’t “melt” that easily, and they can only interact with the world via the cultural references they have. Even several generations after the first, many aspects of a person’s cultural heritage live on in them. I do like the “Equal Rights” spoon Miss Liberty is using to stir us with, though. It would be nice if we saw that spoon a lot more often in public life.

Or maybe we’re like a salad bowl, as a more contemporary image says: all the assorted individuals mix together and interact with each other, but they maintain most of their original flavors and characteristics. (in this illustration, is the English language kind of like the . . . salad dressing?)

I’m not sure that’s an entirely apt metaphor, either, because after a while we do grow more like our nearer neighbors, while older ties and influences may loosen. Assimilation may never be total, but it is an important force.

Fact is, neither is a perfect image, because people aren’t (normally) pieces of food. We’re way more complicated than that. This is a worry and an irritation to those who like to keep things simple, but I have a feeling those folks have enough frustrations already: life is rarely uncomplicated.

If you’re the kind of person who lives in fear, then the “otherness” of people from different cultures can be frightening. If you’re the kind of person who finds variety to be the spice of life, then nothing tastes better–pot OR bowl–than cultural diversity.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the WYPR article America: Melting Pot or Salad Bowl? for the image of Melting Pot Stirred by Liberty, and to the Oswego (NY) City Schools Regents Prep website for the Salad Bowl of Immigration image. 

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