Yes, I Write About Cops in the BLM Era
Well, let’s see how many followers this post costs me…
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 issue of police brutality. On the heels of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, and too many others, Behind the Badge had been my attempt at examining how protagonist Jill Andersen would respond to a case in which the suspects happened to be her own colleagues.
Because Jill was someone who believed wholeheartedly in law enforcement. But she was also someone who broke the law by acting as a vigilante on top of her day job. The dichotomy was practically begging for such an examination.
Behind the Badge, which was loosely based on the Gray case, is also 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. But since that’s not happening in the real world, I found myself once again turning to fiction.
Then police murdered George Floyd in 2020. During the initial height of COVID. 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. Because this is a conversation that needs to happen, even if too many refuse to have it.
That’s not to say that’s all the series will become — this is, after all, still 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?
What if the police are beyond reform and need to be completely changed?
The entire reason Jill became a superhero was because early in her law enforcement career, she saw simply being a cop wasn’t good enough. The reasons for that are numerous and go far beyond “cops shouldn’t kill Black people.” 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? According to American society, her badge is enough. She’s a hero because she’s a cop, and there’s almost no consideration for her personal behavior beyond that. America downright fetishizes law enforcement — like the military before it — to the point where simply being a cop is heroic.
There’s a reason the other side tried to get Blue Lives Matter trending in response to Black Lives Matter. Never mind the fact that 1) being a cop is a choice; being Black isn’t, and 2) society already proves that cops matter because any time one is killed, the justice system does its damnedest to avenge them.
No such efforts for those killed by cops. Or their families.
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.
It’s true that fiction is meant to entertain, but fiction with a message — fiction with something to say — just resonates more.
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? I’m not saying we need to go back to the Keystone Kops days (check out this great video essay on the history of cop depictions in popular fiction), but maybe we need to stop putting cops on this pedestal.
J.D. Cunegan is a self-published author and freelance editor who has written six novels (including Notna and the Jill Andersen series), the non-fiction The Art of Reading, and has had short stories published in three anthologies.
You can find his work at https://jdcuneganbooks.com.