I was in law enforcement for over twelve years. Many things, like the high incarceration rate of black males, have disturbed me about our criminal justice system. But when it came to police brutality, I believed in the “few rotten apples” theory. I understand the pressures police face from administrators and the media, and the risks they face daily. But too many black Americans have experienced violence by police—from the 1992 beating of Rodney King to the recent killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. Many citizens are calling for police reform, some demanding that we defund police agencies. I can’t support that, but attempts to eradicate this violence have failed, and law enforcement has become more militarized. The history of American policing suggests that systemic racism is embedded in its culture. If so, has crime fiction reflected this?
Early policing in the Colonies emphasized controlling behavior that threatened the social fabric, like prostitution and gambling. By the 18th century, the focus was on property. Shipping companies and the merchants using them convinced citizens to pay for police forces to protect goods they transported. But especially in the South, the most lucrative “property” was slaves. So patrols were created to hunt down runaway slaves and prevent revolts.
The first patrol, in the Carolinas in 1704, charged its militia with these duties, and the idea soon spread to other colonies. One of the most famous patrols was the Texas Rangers, whose early history was filled with repeated violence against Native Americans, Mexicans, and runaway slaves. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army assumed this job, afraid slaves would spy for the Union. During Reconstruction, the newly created Ku Klux Klan, aided by sheriffs’ offices filled with former Rebel soldiers, terrorized emancipated black farmers and landowners with burning crosses, beatings, and lynchings.
“Modern” law enforcement began in the late 19th Century. But it was still all-white, with precincts connected to political machines and wealthy industrialists. Police were involved in election fraud and breaking up labor strikes. In the South, they enforced Jim Crow laws that kept communities segregated and black citizens from voting. Women and minorities were ultimately allowed to join police agencies. But the culture of white males empowered to enforce law and order, rather than serve and protect the community, remained.
The crime fiction genre began in 1841 with Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” Similar stories featuring private detectives were popular after the Civil War. In 1894, Mark Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson” highlighted the new forensic tool of fingerprinting in solving a slave owner’s murder. But while critical of slavery, the book clung to prevailing racial stereotypes.
In the first half of the 20th century, “hard-boiled” authors like Chandler, Hammett, and Cain, largely ignored both professional cops and racism. Most characters were white, like their private eyes, who dealt with villains and victims in a world blighted by moral decay. By the Fifties, the burgeoning TV industry drew writers for shows like “Dragnet,” “Highway Patrol,” and “The Untouchables.” But because studios depended on the cooperation of local police agencies, they had little to say about the issue of racism— in law enforcement or the country. Then in 1960, Harper Lee published “To kill A Mockingbird.” Lee changed many Americans’ attitudes about racism with her story of a small-town lawyer trying, unsuccessfully, to obtain an acquittal for a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
Chester B. Himes, a black writer, tackled racism in a book series featuring two black NYPD detectives in the Sixties, which included “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” Ossie Davis took it to the screen in 1971, kicking off a wave of “blaxploitation” movies. “Shaft,” adapted from a novel by Ernest Tidyman, was perhaps the most famous, defying the black male stereotypes on TV and in movies. Joseph Wambaugh, a former LA detective, also went beyond stereotypes in novels depicting the corruption and violence in law enforcement. Beginning with “The New Centurion” in 1971, his books described the stresses and horrors that police must deal with as well.
The Supreme Court’s overturning of the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954, the 1965 Civil Rights Act, the Vietnam War, and prolific drug use led to a lack of faith in authority and fears that law enforcement couldn’t protect its citizens. Especially white, middle class citizens. Vigilante novels, like Brian Garfield’s “Death Wish,” spawned several movies and were hugely popular in the Seventies and Eighties. John Grisham’s 1989 novel, “A Time to Kill,” featured vigilante justice in Mississippi by a black man avenging the rape of his ten-year-old daughter by two white men. The white lawyer defending him must deal with the Klan burning down his house and brutalizing his young intern.
Walter Mosley ignored this trend in 1990, creating his Easy Rawlins series. Set in 1940’s LA, it explores the harsh world of blacks in postwar America. Thomas Mullen’s “Darktown” series, created in 2016, also focuses on this era. It highlights both the discrimination heaped on black policemen by white officers during the desegregation of the Atlanta Police Department, as well as the mistrust they faced from the black community they were trying to serve. And it describes the conflict some white officers have when they see colleagues engaged in violent, dehumanizing behavior.
The above list is hardly comprehensive, but it shows how inconsistent crime fiction has been in reflecting systemic racism in law enforcement. Political and social influences account for some of that, but writers also must contend with what publishers will buy, based on readers’ tastes. So far, serial killers have trumped reality.
I believe most police officers try to fulfill their oaths of office. But they’re hampered by a culture that stems from the racism inherent in the history of our nation. Banning chokeholds and “no-knock warrants,” or attempting to make agencies community-based, won’t change anything until we confront this. I also believe crime fiction writers can do more to help with the process.
TRISHA DONAVAN is retired from law enforcement and writes crime novels as P.L. Doss.