I have been asked why publish Tricky now. In light of the Black Lives Matter and the Defund the Police movement, what kinda idjit writes a LAPD detective as a protagonist?
Problems with the police didn’t start in the summer of 2020. If you haven’t noticed this, count yourself very lucky, for you are living a privileged life.
Writing about the police is as complicated as my feeling about them. My father was an activist, when I was child he was arrested put in prison for trying to stop nuclear testing. Before I was born he was arrested for armed robbery. When I was fifteen I was arrested for B&E, and driving while intoxicated without a license. I’ve had police aim guns at me multiple times. I have felt the helpless fear of being hand cuffed. As have both my sons.
Also — and this matters — my grandfather was a member the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department from 1938 until 1970. He was a beat cop, a juvenile officer and ultimately Division Chief of Corrections. He was also the finest man I’ve ever known. He never pulled his firearm outside of the shooting range because as he said, “Only pull your gun when you plan on killing someone.” He never saw the need to take a life.
This biographical information is simply to show that my biases are balanced. I am also the father of Dylan, an intellectually disabled man, who at twenty-six developed schizoaffective disorder. Before we found the correct medications he acted out in rages both physical and verbal. Twice police were called in, once the LAPD, thankfully a SMART Team arrive to deescalate the situation. The second time he was living in Glendale a town that at the time had no mental health unit. Deescalation was left to Dylan’s brave young Latinx caregiver. She placed herself between the officer’s gun and our son.
Either of these situations could have lead to my son being killed. But having a SMART team that partners a police officer with a mental health professional lowered the chances of a bad ending. Since then there has been a large increase in number of SMART team members in the LAPD. Nationally, several cities have adopted similar approaches. The problem in LA is when you dial 911 you can’t request a SMART team, that determination is made by the patrol officers who first arrive on the scene.
“Hello 911, my son is freaking out, can you be sure and send a compassionate officer who’s trained in dealing with and evaluating mental illness?” Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. In a big city you get the officer you get. There are two modalities in crisis management, tactical and negotiation. The goal of a tactical response is to eliminate the threat. Period. Detecting who did what is done only after the situation is controlled. The goal of crisis negotiations is to seek a peaceful resolution. As a parent calling 911 you’d better pray you get an officer trained in crisis negotiations.
Dallas PD has developed RIGHT Care, a team of made up of a police officer, a licensed clinical social worker, a paramedic, and off-site clinicians. They are getting a lot of it correct, they a have a mental health professional at 911 to screen calls. But, again it is the armed officer who rolls up first to assess the risks. Here’s the problem, for a lot of us, me included, the presence of an armed officer raises our blood pressure. I have heard it said, “if cops make you nervous, you must have done something wrong.” Again, if you believe that, you are living a blessed life, and mostly likely white, upper middle class or wealthy.
Eugene, Oregon for the last 30 years has had Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets or CAHOOTS. A mobile crisis intervention response teams that is tied in directly to 911. The team consists of a medic (either a nurse or an EMT) and a crisis worker. They access the situation and decide if police officers are needed, statistically they most often aren’t. CAHOOTS saves an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually. One of the problems in trying to instigate a program like this is convincing the public that people in mental health crisis aren’t inherently dangerous. That is the facts, but not what out guts tell us. And this is the real problem, until we all agree that mental illness and drug/alcohol dependence are diseases not moral failing to be shamed or punished away, we will continue to murder and lock up huge sections of our populous.
We need to rethink the “law and order” as a way to solve social problems paradigm. Up until recently a politician accused of being “soft on crime” could kiss their career goodbye. Left right and center, all politicians talked about being tough and building more prisons. The term Super Predator didn’t come from the right side of the aisle.
If I were the king of the forest, I’d defund every police force in the country. Then I’d ask the officers to reapply the next day. Screening these “new” applicants for more empathetic personalities. But luckily for us all I’m just a fiction writer.
That doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. We have national crisis in how our police departments work. We have institutional racism. Institutional fear of the other. Institutional belief in tactical solutions. To solve all this, we need all hands on deck. Us writers need to stop writing Dirty Harry solves it with a gun dramas. They never were true. And I’m sorry to fans of the TV show 24, but any CIA analyst will tell you, torture doesn’t work. Water-board a person and they will say anything to make you stop. “Anything” is not actionable intel.
Why do we love these tropes? Renegade cop: who plays by their own rules. Vigilante punisher: who beats and tortures the bad guys, and loves kittens. Mentally ill killer: who must be taken out, hard. Ending a novel with locking up the bad guy, like that has ever really solved the problem. How about this old trope, police officers’ lives are in constant danger? Sometimes they are, a lot of the job they aren’t, but pump this fear high enough and we are all in danger. And my least favorite clichés, “It was suicide by cop.” There is no such thing. An officer who kills a person may have had just cause, or not, but their gun still killed that person. Suicide is a solo act by its very nature. All these tropes are not only lazy writing, they make for a more dangerous world. We need to question everything we create, ask ourselves, is it true and is it just?
After one too many shootings, crime writer Eric Beetner convinced a bunch of other crime writers to join him in an anthology, UNLOADED: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns. All proceeds went to the nonprofit States United To Prevent Gun Violence. This not only raised money for worthy cause, it also made some of us think about the real world consequences of what we wrote.
I wrote my latest novel Tricky in response partly to my son almost being shot by two different cops. But also to call out how America polices it’s mentally ill, neurodiverse, and people of color. In 2019 The Arc, a nonprofit that advocates for people with disabilities, estimated that between 4 and 10 percent of U.S. prisoners have an intellectual disability.The numbers in state and county jails are even larger. What does this say about us as a society? Does anyone really think they can punish my son into a higher IQ bracket?
Back to my grandfather the cop… He spent much of his life trying to make prisons better. He brought in AA at a time it was unheard of. He brought in psychologists from UCLA and USC to try and find new ways to reach inmates. He believed that more than 90% of the jail population were followers. Less than 10% were hardened criminals and psychologically unfit for rehabilitation. The US correctional system was built on the idea of rehabilitation. At least that’s what they said. Yet looking at three strike laws, and locking drug addicts up for life, and putting mental ill people in jail, exposes the truth of our national obsession with vengeance. Or maybe I’m wrong, and as illogical as it sounds, we actually think we can punish people into good behavior. Our recidivism rate proves that ain’t true. But It feels true so we go with it.
A week before Grandpa Stallings passed away, we were chatting, I asked him, “What would you do to fix the correctional system in America?”
He thought about, then said, “I’d tear it to the ground and start over. We got the original idea wrong.”
The same is true for how we police people in mental health crisis. We got it wrong. But it doesn’t need to stay that way.