Real World Issues and Fantasy Literature: Police Forces

This article is by Thomas Cecil.

handcuffsI recently attended WisCon, a feminist SFF convention in Madison Wisconsin. I saw and heard a lot of great things, but one of the panels I keep thinking about is the one about policing and how we can use fiction, particularly science fiction and fantasy fiction, to help imagine solutions to a very real world problem.

I realized while writing this article that the entire question about reforming our police forces is only a political question. What I can do, and have done, is keep my personal beliefs out of this and just reported the panelist’s discussion.

The only other note I want to make before starting is that it occurred to me that I heard a conversation between writers for other writers in a private venue. I don’t know that the same conversation would—or could—have happened if it was conducted in a more public forum. Since I’m not in control of this public forum, but am just reporting a discussion, I felt it necessary to anonymize the entire conversation. This is done out of courtesy and respect for the individuals on the panel, since this is inherently a political conversation and they have not requested to be harassed for comments made mostly in private.

Issues in Modern Policing

The discussion started off with the issues that have made Ferguson, Missouri a talking point. Some of these issues are:

  • a resistance to any training about how to deal with bias so it doesn’t affect the outcome of decisions about how law is implemented
  • how the police force exists to enforce cultural “norms”
  • how the system has become dysfunctional, while the individuals within the system are largely not dysfunctional elements—but there is no way for the individual to trump the system
  • lack of accountability

To take these points one by one, several of the panelists work with the police in their local communities to provide training on issues such as how to remove bias about race from law enforcement decisions, to how to deescalate situations that involve mentally ill people. There has been significant resistance from their local police departments about the need for such training, as there is a belief system that operates within police culture that there is no inherent discrimination and they treat everyone equally. But, as several reports have found, there is an inherent bias within some police forces that are a direct result of the cultural and societal norms that police are in place to protect, i.e. the current power structures that overwhelmingly favor middle class to rich white males.

Which brings up the next point on the list: enforcing cultural norms. Different ethnic groups have different cultural values. Some of these values line up with what middle class America thinks of as “good”. Some don’t. The ones that don’t are usually the ones that predominantly people of color end up being charged with when the police can’t prove that they’ve actively broken a serious law. And in the end, what they’re being charged with isn’t necessarily illegal at all, it’s just the fact that they are not white, or not rich/middle class. Because when white people (or lighter skinned people of color who can pass as white) do the same technically illegal acts they are often warned against doing the behavior in the future—if they are spoken to at all.

For example, many municipalities have laws that prohibit spitting in public spaces. The reason for this law was to prevent the spread of diseases which have largely been eradicated within the US, like tuberculosis. The majority of the people charged with this crime are people of color, and particularly immigrant (or within a generation of immigration) people of color. There are other laws about loitering, which also disproportionately affect people of color and can be used against people sitting outside their own home (if they live in a brownstone with a stoop especially), as a way to enforce white middle class cultural values. In this latter scenario, white middle class values are that you shouldn’t “idle” outside your apartment building, especially if you’re a person of color, because such idling is often viewed as the start of illegal activity. Which it cannot be in each and every case, and even if it were it really is no one’s business what you and your friends are talking about if no one is being harmed. This is how police end up enforcing cultural norms that aren’t necessarily the norms of the people they’re arresting.

There was some argument as to whether or not the individuals within the police structures of power are largely responsible for the dysfunctional power structures within the justice systems. It was concluded that individual police officers cannot be held responsible for the problems of the system they operate within, as most police are doing their jobs correctly: with full regard for the law and unbiased judgment calls as to who and how they police. The onus of the dysfunction was placed upon the power structures that are valued by society and the need to change them. So, the police officer who fines someone for “manner of walking” is operating within her sphere of authority, because as the law (aka the system of power) stands, that is something a police officer can issue a ticket for.

There have been several reports about how little accountability there is for the modern police force. There is little to no reporting of officer involved shootings that result in death, although there are reports that track the number of police officers killed while on duty. There is little to no enforcement of any legal action against officers involved in shootings that result in death, and most investigations are conducted by an internal—yet allegedly separate—entity. This gets into a long standing question of “who polices the police” and no one as of yet has come up with a good solution to this problem.

The conversation then turned to a discussion of what the police force is actually used for, if not public safety. Several theories were put forward, including some discussion about cultural norm enforcement and the way that police smooth the way to put people of color in prison, and that maybe the police are a way to fuel the prison-industrial complex. There was a minor bit of discussion about how police also enforce gender norms, as trans* or feminine-presenting gay men (or men at all for that matter) or masculine-presenting lesbian women reported issues of rape, harassment, or assault are generally not taken seriously.

There was a side conversation about policing in India and how it differs from the US. There were two main differences: the trans* community is even more marginalized within India (for various reasons, mostly coming down to openly defying expected societal role in a society that thrives on rigid societal roles/norms) and thus are even more prone to being harassed by the police; and bribery is both rampant and open.

Intersectional Policing: Ways the Police and Community Can Interact to Better Serve Public Safety

Several solutions were suggested as a way to fix our police force, and this list is non-inclusive:

  • body cameras
  • community based policing (more on this later)
  • restorative justice
  • transformative justice

Some police departments are starting to use body cameras in addition to patrol unit cameras. This is a step in the right direction, as it ensures that there is a non-biased witness (the camera) at each and every interaction with the public.

For those of us who don’t write urban fantasy, there could be a magical equivalent of a “watching” spell so that those who interact (often) with the police force would feel like there was some kind of higher authority that the police answered to—and that actual justice was being done, not some kind of “he must have done something” per the usual status quo in fantasy novels.

The suggestion for community based policing is an interesting one. They put forward that one of the better and easier to implement changes to modern policing is to take a page out of the old policing handbook and have the officers assigned to patrols within their own neighborhoods. This is to do two things: the first being that officers who live within their assigned patrol will be more familiar with the people within their patrol and there is less likelihood of treating the people you live with as the “Enemy”. The second is that by familiarizing themselves with the locality that they patrol they are quicker to respond and they’d know where everything is that they’d need to know about.

We see this strategy most often in fantasy novels, as most fantasy novels tend to use some Earth historical approaches to problems within the story. For example, Terry Pratchett’s Guards series predominately features such localized policing.

Other tactics for community based policing include bringing in a respected member of the local community to help keep the area calm during police-community interactions, as well as increasing the local support structures within the community to lessen the need for police involvement at all, i.e. increased access to mental health facilities in low income areas.

Restorative justice was probably the most interesting concept as that changes the law and punishment order completely. The basic idea is that the two (or more) parties affected by the illegal act are brought together to see if there is some common ground and talk over the act in question. It is an alternative to automatically imprisoning people, although there are some problems with this kind of strategy especially in cases of murder or Ponzi schemes, to use two examples.

Transformative justice is the idea that instead of punishing low levels of criminality, there is intervention instead. Mostly, this intervention would come in the form of mental health care, but sometimes it would come in the form of members of the community mentoring individuals to get them out of hard situations, by not making the illegal choices to begin with. This idea has largely been adopted by black communities, in the latter case, and has seen success.

How Fantasy Can be Used to Alter the Ways We Think About Policing

For the last five or so minutes of the discussion, the panelists talked about how authors could challenge the current judicial system in their SFF writing and the following points came up:

A dystopian novel might not be the best fit for exploring how to change the police because most dystopian fiction is written from a distant POV. It is not applicable to our current situation if it is not immediately obvious that the critique is of our society as it currently regards itself.

And another panelists suggested that it might be interesting to explore these questions from a person of color’s point of view, as most of the times it has been explored previously it has been done from a point of view that is very much enabled and ignored by the current judicial system.

Further Reading List

The last part of the discussion entailed a reading list of SFF that has either upheld the current system or has challenged it in some way.

The two biggest examples of SFF that reinforces the current paradigm of law and punishment are:

Philip K Dick’s “Minority Report” and Robert Heinlein’s “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.

The list of books and authors that challenge the current paradigm is much longer:

The Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy
Santa Olivia, Jacqueline Carey
Who Fears Death, Nnedi Okorafor
The Dispossessed, Ursula K LeGuin
Murder over Soho (an urban fantasy series) Ben Aaronovitch
Seven Ways to Forgiveness, Ursula K LeGuin
Iain Banks’ Culture novels
Charles Stross
Cory Doctorow

Further Discussion

What other ways can justice be achieved either with or without a police force? Are there any other SFF books that illustrate these ideas?

How can we as individual citizens advocate for more responsible policing within our communities?

How can we as a society change so that some of the issues with modern policing are eliminated, i.e. stereotypes about young men of color, trans* individuals, and other minority identities?

About the Author:

Thomas Cecil is a writer of quirky SFF.

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Brian Foster
Brian Foster
5 years ago

Thomas,

By framing the entire issue of the way police behave as solely a racial/gender/whatever-class-needs-special-attention issue, I think you’re missing a key component of the problem and, thus, the solution.

Overall, I think being an officer is a difficult job, one I certainly wouldn’t want to be charged with. I have nothing but respect for those who do it honorably. The problem is, though, that being an officer, in addition to having to deal with some really crappy people in the worst of circumstances, conveys upon the individual an awesome sense of power.

Thing about it, what would happen if you could, anytime you wanted, simply order a citizen to move out of the way or, if you really wanted, to detain them. Without that badge, you’d be a kidnapper. For the police, it’s just part of their job.

Hate to quote Stan Lee on a serious issue, but…With great power comes great responsibility. My problem with the police is that a lot of them have forgotten about the responsibility that comes with power.

Put another way – power corrupts, and that corruption has wormed its way into police forces nationwide. It’s an issue that, imo, transcends race and gender and everything else.

An incident that drove it home for me wasn’t Ferguson, but something that happened before that. There was this woman trying to cross a freeway on foot in CA. A CHP officer totally lost his mind and just started knocking the crap out of her…on tape.

Did the CHP head say, “This is the very definition of wrong. We have to go through the motions of due process for this scum, but we cannot let anyone sully the uniform in this manner.”

Nope.

Instead, he hid behind the blue wall and talked about procedure and due process. Not even a hint of scorn in his voice for the officer.

Really?

That’s not a racial issue. That’s a group who is drunk on their own power and who need to be taken down a peg or two.

If you want to highlight the problem in a story, simply show them for what they are – corrupted by power.

Thanks.

Brian

Brian DeLeonard
Brian DeLeonard
5 years ago

There are much more serious and demonstrably effective ways to improve the justice system, such as pre-trial programs to help first time offenders, reforming the drug laws (I would like to see states be able to apply for waivers from federal drug laws to pursue their own efforts), and (regarding bias) simply giving police more paid vacation time to get away and get perspective.

Most of the ideas presented in this article are ineffective and even damaging to the legitimacy of police work. It almost sounds absurd to interfere with the point of arrest by expecting police to stop and bring in a “respected member of the local community.” Even something as seemingly innocuous as having police officers patrol their own neighborhoods is more likely to result in corruption than in better policing.

And “Transformative Justice” sounds a lot like a civil suit. Unless you seriously want to take a victim of a criminal offense, push them into a room with a criminal, and ask him or her to compromise? That’s not what criminal law is about, nor should it be. It would just be another opportunity to open the victim up for abuse, even if the offense is as small as petty theft, because people fight and hate even over the little stuff.

While there should be a discussion, somewhere, about police training, reporting and accountability, it’s a very difficult one for us to have. For instance, I’m sure they have a system for training, reporting and accountability, but we couldn’t seriously try and figure out what it is, where it goes wrong, or how it should be improved. It’s a very technical discussion full of nuanced facts, not easily undertaken without a great deal of research.

Finally, if cultural norms like loitering are an issue, then that needs to be addressed in the wording of the law without hampering the police’s ability, for instance, to stop an obvious gang or drug front lookout. There are flip sides to those discussions which need to be taken into account.

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