Paul Cornell’s Shadow Police series and Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series both look at the theme of the modern British police service with a supernatural twist. This panel aims to explore the ways in which the police are portrayed in urban fantasy. What do they get right? What do they do wrong?
Panellists: Sarah Groenewegen, Caroline Mersey, Laura Manuel
This is the first session I went to at the Con, and my second-favourite. It has very direct relevancy to my current project, London Under, as my primary narrator is a DI in the London Met. As Laura Manuel is an Intelligence Officer in the Met, I ended up mainly writing down what she said. She gave me permission to quote her, though, so don’t worry!
Authenticity in Fiction
Peter Gant from Rivers of London is what’s known in the Force as a ‘gobby probby’. He’s an inexperienced know-it-all, which works fine on the page but wouldn’t go down well with officers and experienced PCs. He never interacts with real officers during the course of his career, as he goes straight into a special supernatural unit. Laura reckoned he wouldn’t last five minutes in a Metropolitan Response Unit.
Policing across the world changes constantly. You can be right at the time of draft and wrong by publishing. There really isn’t much you can do to get around this, unless you invent analogues of systems and departments that would reasonably be expected to change at different rates. There are so many departments that this is an entirely reasonable approach – Laura said she’d been in the Force for eight years and still discovered new teams on a weekly basis.
Getting access to training courses and computer programmes takes time, because the police are under-resourced. Officers also don’t have time for two-day training – ‘you get one day if you’re lucky’.
When you walk into a police building it’s permeated by the smell of pot noodles and takeaway curry. There’s always a cupboard that’s been turned into a snack shop, with an honesty box. Surveillance teams will always be in tracksuit bottoms.
Aaronovitch gets the attitudes and sense of humour in the Met right, as well as their likely approach to encounters with the supernatural: ‘we acknowledge the Department of Weird because it’s necessary, but don’t like to talk about it because we don’t understand it.’
Policing the Community
Robert Peel’s Principles of Policing was brought up, which I hadn’t considered before, and the emphasis on the police’s connection with the communities they serve. Would this include supernatural elements of the community? There was some discussion over how the legal system would need to be adjusted to account for that – would the Dangerous Dogs Act cover werewolves, for example? I believe there were several volunteers to get involved in the legal restructuring, should that eventuality come up!
That said, there is a tension between police and the community – something which came up in my favourite panel, The City in SFF, which I’ll post in a few weeks. The Force acknowledges that they can be bad at providing explanations and descriptions of what they’re doing, and this silence can provoke tension. Sometimes it’s caused by operational imperatives – any explanations risk alerting the suspects, for example – but sometimes things just slip through the cracks. They are, as mentioned above, under-resourced.
After the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 – a watershed moment in the treatment of racially motivated crimes – the Met called all the black officers on the Force together and gave them three days to come up with guidelines and proposed legislation for the Met to use in tackling institutional racism. None of those officers were given any kind of training or guidance, because there wasn’t any to be had. The Met made the assumption that, because they were black, they would know how racial crimes ought to be treated. They didn’t have any other recourse at the time. Laura reckoned that, if the police ever encountered the supernatural community, it would probably be handled in a very similar manner. The Met would assemble a bunch of supernatural officers (or civilians, if there weren’t any officers), and say ‘tell us what we need to know and do in order to regulate you.’ [Which sounds like an awesome story set-up.]
Diversity in the Force
The gender balance in the Force is shifting; POC less so, but there is slow progress. As a whole, homophobia isn’t a problem (except for asinine individuals, which is the same as normal society). There’s a huge police presence at Pride, widely publicised. The Met judges people on a single criteria: ‘don’t break the law and you’re fine’. That said, senior officers continue to be ‘very male, very pale, and very stale’, although it was pointed out that three of the most senior law officers in the country currently are female.
Laura said that she’d love to see more roles than homicide detectives in stories. Non-PCs and officers play a critical part in modern policing. For example, analysts are wizards [which I totally want to do something with]. They are police staff but not constables or officers – they’re police civilians. They have access to multiple systems, all of which are complex and none of which are interconnected, and can bring information across systems together in a matter of hours to predict emerging trends of crime, patterns of behaviour, etc. A lot of police work is heavily intelligence-led, and that is delegated to analysts. There can be tension between officers and police civilians, often stemming from a generational gap (most analysts are young). The analyst needs to become part of the team somehow.
There’s also the issue of managing trauma and mental illness. The stuff they have to deal with takes a toll, even if you’re just reading the reports rather than on the ground. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to deal with the worst of what people can do to each other, and then go out for a cheerful drink with your mates or tuck your children happily into bed. That mental resilience, and the coping mechanisms required, deserve respect.
Next week: classical monsters in popular culture