Writing About Law Enforcement in the BLM Era

I published Behind the Badge, the third book in the Jill Andersen series, in 2016. Not only was it a consequential book in terms of the overall series arc, but it also marked the first time I wrote about the issues of police brutality. On the heels of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and too many others, Behind the Badge was my attempt at examining how Jill Andersen would respond to a case in which the suspects happened to be her own colleagues.

Behind the Badge, which was loosely based on the Gray case, is my worst-selling book (not that surprising, given the subject matter). It is also, sadly, still my most relevant.

It’s a simple concept at face value: the police should not be indiscriminately killing people, particularly Black people who have already endured centuries of violence and oppression and indignities for no other reason than the color of their skin. There are those who disagree with that idea, and they need to be called out for what they are and cast aside as social pariahs.

Then this past summer saw George Floyd murdered by police. In front of a crowd. In broad daylight.

It felt like the discussion surrounding race and police brutality shifted after that. Got deeper. It was no longer enough to call for the cops to stop killing Black people. Now the very notion of policing itself is under scrutiny. The history of it. The need (or lack of need) for it. Some will tell you how bad a slogan “Defund the Police” was from a political strategy standpoint, but it struck at the very core of what the discussion had become, a reality made apparent following Floyd’s murder: what if the police can’t be reformed?

Considering my flagship work features several characters who work in law enforcement, and I’ve already used the series to examine the issue of excessive police force, it feels like I’d be doing a disservice if my series didn’t continue to touch on and examine the same conversation that’s going on in our country.

That’s not to say that’s all the series will become — this is, after all, a story about a cybernetically-enhanced superhero. But the fantastic can offer a window into the mundane, and the overall notion of what role, if any, law enforcement has in society is a thread that fits into Jill’s character narrative. Jill always wanted to be a cop, looked up to her father who also served, and she steadfastly believes that at its best, law enforcement can be a good and vital thing.

But what if she’s wrong?

What if everyone who believes that is wrong?

The entire reason Jill became a superhero was because she saw, early in her law enforcement career, that simply being a cop wasn’t good enough. The reasons for that are numerous, and go far beyond the “cops shouldn’t kill Black people” argument. They strike at the core of Jill as a character, and they strike at her relationships with so many of the people closest to her.

Is Jill a hero? If so, is it because of her badge, or because of her suit, or because of her deeds?

I feel like I have a moral imperative to tackle the issue of police violence and inherent bias and everything tangled within, but tackling Black Lives Matter and police brutality and racism and the role of law enforcement more broadly provides me, as a writer, with a tremendous opportunity to really dive into my characters and examine the reason this series still exists.

I feel like so much of what we, as a society, think of law enforcement stems from popular culture’s portrayal of it. Between mystery novels and buddy cop movies and the umpteen thousand TV shows about detectives and SWAT teams and federal agents, we’re being fed this all-American, badass version of law enforcement where the violence is justified, the heroes are never wrong, and those with badges should never be questioned.

Maybe it’s time for some law enforcement-centered fiction that pushes back on that a little?