The standout panel for me at the World Fantasy Con last November was Fantasy and the Reality of Law Enforcement, moderated by Mark L. Van Name. It was excellent because panelists Griffin Barber and Alistair Kimble actually work in law enforcement. Barber is in the police force, and Kimble, if I understood correctly is (or was) in the FBI.
Here’s the panel description, taken from the World Fantasy Convention 2014 website (and I love that it remains up after the Con is over!):
Fantasy writers who are also law-enforcement workers discuss how fantasy fiction portrays law enforcement, and compare those practices to real-world law enforcement. They will talk about where fiction differs from reality and discuss what works in stories and what really is fantasy. In discussing such works as The City and The City (China Mieville), Finch (Jeff VanderMeer), London Falling (Paul Cornell), and Servant of Empire (Raymond Feist), they will contrast the real and fantasy worlds of law enforcement.
I finally got round to compiling my notes on it. (This may contain errors because this area is new to me – please feel free to correct mistakes):
- Paul Cornell gets it. In response to which authors they knew who got it right, they picked Paul Cornell, a UK writer. It’s authentic and rings true. (When I googled him, I found he’d written some Dr Who episodes.)
- Use of force. Books often portray police as trigger-happy. Barber said in 13 years in law enforcement, he hadn’t discharged his weapon once – though his finger crept to the trigger a few times. There are many steps of response well before reaching lethal force. And there’s a “force continuum” – starts with the baton, goes to a sleep hold (not a choke-hold), and goes to pepper spray before getting to shooting someone.
- For the FBI, it’s one-zero. Kimble said the FBI doesn’t use weapons as a threat or a deterrent – it’s one-zero. They also don’t shoot to kill; they shoot to eliminate the threat.
- When an officer shoots – not what you think. Barber pointed out that if there is a shooting, the standard by which the officer is judged is not what the public perceives. The legal standard is, Would another officer with the same training have done the same thing? (It’s like the standard used to evaluate medical malpractice – would another professional have made the same call?) But he says that officers don’t shoot lightly; it weighs on their minds all the time.
- Personal video cameras on police officers make a difference. They not only provide evidence when things go wrong, the public were less likely to complain about an officer’s actions where video cameras were used. They don’t necessarily stop an officer from shooting if his life in in danger – according to Barber, “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6.” The problem is cost. They generate a huge amount of data, which means there are storage and handling costs.
- The FBI is mandated to record every custodial interview (audio or video).
- It’s not like CSI. Kimble talked about the TV program CSI creating the false expectations – that a DNA test was routine and could lead one to the criminal in short order. First, DNA is not always tested; tests cost $800 a pop. Even if it is tested for, the time to results is 3-5 weeks. The True Detective TV show is a better model than CSI.
- Handcuffs aren’t the end, there’s paperwork. Barber pointed out a case doesn’t end with the criminal taken away in handcuffs. There’s the paperwork. Lots of it. Your supervisor is going to want to see your report. You have to make sure the paperwork is done in case of complaints. Evidence collection requires a chain of custody; if it’s not solid, the case won’t hold up in court.
- The worst kind of cases are domestic violence and Driving Under the Influence (DUI). They’re frustrating, with a small payoff. You end up doing 4 hours of paperwork, and most domestic violence victims return to their abuser.
- Writing law enforcement authentically:
- Don’t dehumanize people wearing uniforms. They’re still people.
- Writing about loads of boring paperwork without being boring – have the officers complain about it!
- When in doubt, denigrate upper management!
- FBI has something called Citizen’s Academy which is an excellent way to learn about the FBI.
- Black humor is a common way to relieve the stress of dealing with crime and death.
(If anyone has anything to add or correct please leave a comment. Comments are moderated because of spam, but I should get to it within 24 hours.)