“Fantasy and the Reality of Law Enforcement”

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.)

World Fantasy Con 2014 at Washington DC

hyatt lobby World Fantasy and Rolling Thunder

This year’s World Fantasy Convention was in Washington DC, in other words – accessible. (Last year, it was in Brighton, UK, and the year before, in Canada.) The last time I went was San Diego, in 2011. (I blogged about it here.) So I grabbed the chance to attend. I’m so glad I did.

desirina boskovich and ann vandermeerThe highlight of the Con for me was the people. I’m in an online forum of neo-professional writers called Codex. I’ve met some  in person, usually at Cons. This time, around 40 Codexians attended WFC. This gave me a group  of writers to hang out with – smart, friendly, and interested in a broad range of topics. It was such a pleasure meeting people who I’ve mostly “met” only online. I also caught up with people I know from other cons, and of course Clarion peops like Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, Delia Sherman and Ellen Kushner, and my Clarion classmate Desirina Boskovich – who I was meeting for the first time since 2007!

WFC had two tracks of programming, and one track of readings. After my recent experience at Convolution, which had so many tracks I lost count, this felt pretty manageable. This meant that they were all pretty well-attended, since they didn’t have ten events simultaneously competing for everyone’s attention.

All the panels delivered very much what they promised in their descriptions. On Thursday, I went to Humor in Fantasy, and Fantasy and the Reality of Law Enforcement. Friday, it was Language and Linguistics in Fantasy; Adoption and Fostering in Fantasy; Beyond Rebellion in Young Adult Fantasy; Historical Influences in Fantasy. On Saturday, I made a hard choice between Animals in Fantasy and International Fantasy and Translation, and opted for the ‘Translation’ panel.

Every one was interesting and I learned something, but the standout was ‘Law Enforcement.’ Two of the panelists were an FBI person and a police officer – and both are writers. So they had interesting insights about law enforcement, how it’s portrayed, how to make it authentic without being boring, and the role of paperwork in law enforcement. One point that was valuable to me: Use of force. Police officers very seldom discharge a firearm. If there are questions about it later, the standard to which they’re held is not “What does the public think?” It’s “what would an experienced and trained police officer have done in that situation?”


desirina readingI attended three readings.

  • The Broad Universe ‘rapid fire’ reading, in which a number of authors each read a short piece.
  • Chris Cevasco reading the powerful and painful opening of his novel Eventide, in which King Harold’s wife and mother are searching for his body after the terrible defeat at the Battle of Hastings.
  • A story by Desirina Boskovich Frew (she got married only days before World Fantasy!), in which a woman is driven to terrible vengeance when a man repeatedly revs up his noisy truck under her window at 3 a.m.

I didn’t go for the Awards banquet; instead, the Codexians had a group lunch at Cinnabar. Excellent company, marvelous conversation. Later, as I was preparing to leave for the airport, I met Ellen Klages carrying a World Fantasy Award – the cartoon head of HP Lovecraft – and congratulated her. I hope we’ll see her at FOG 5 in March 2015.


Of course I had to go to the Steampunk User’s Manual launch party. The book is co-authored by Jeff Vandermeer, one of my Clarion instructors, and by Desirina Boskovich, who was in my Clarion 2007 class. It gave me a chance to meet Desirina again after all these years, and though we didn’t get to hang out a lot, we did get to catch up. I also got to talk with Ann Vandermeer a little, though as the main organizer for the party, she was doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes management.

steampunk manual launch party

I’d meant to get  copy of the book and ask Desirina and Jeff to sign it for me but unfortunately I waited too long and it was sold out.


Hyatt Regency turned out the be a superb con hotel. The meeting rooms were arranged around a core area, most of which we could access both by elevator and escalator. Unlike some hotels, where attending any panel involved a very long trek, here the rooms were clustered and accessible. The staff were friendly and helpful, and I really liked the food – I ate most meals at the two restaurants, Cinnabar and Lobbibar. It was good to excellent, and quite reasonable for hotel restaurant food.

Rolling Thunder had a convention at the same time, and a large number of bikers floated around the lobby in cool leather vests covered in patches. This organization focuses on keeping POWs and MIAs in public memory and before legislators – and many of them are bikers. They hold an annual rally in DC with thousands of bikers.


Not just Rockets and Robots thumbnailOn the freebie/ exchange table, I was surprised and delighted to find an anthology that had one of my stories. It was Daily Science Fiction’s compendium of stories from their first year, called ‘Not Just Rockets and Robots.’ My story, Chick Lit, is the same one that was later republished in Polish.

The Dealers’ Room was mainly books – I lost count of the bookstalls. Some were retailers; others were individuals or groups promoting their own books. I resolutely avoided buying any, though I was tempted; my suitcase was already several pounds heavier than when I came in with just the freebie books.

They also had jewelry, which is easier to buy because it’s lighter and takes less space. I especially liked Janet Kofoed‘s work; she does lost-wax castings in silver and copper, and strings them with beads or pearls or stones into necklaces, rings, and ear-rings. I bought a copper lunar moth pendant on a string of pearls.

luna moth necklace Janet Kofoed