Friday, June 19, 2015

Interview with Former SFPD Officer Karen Lynch, author of "Good Cop,Bad Daughter"

Q - In your memoir, Good Cop, Bad Daughter, you describe San Francisco in the 60s and 70s, where you grew up and then became a police officer. In your opinion, how did the anti-war movement affect public perceptions of the police, and how have these perceptions changed over time? 

A - We are living through a time that feels remarkably like my childhood years, in the 1960’s. Police are, once again, perceived as the enemy by a large segment of society, and the public focus has been on police misconduct and malfeasance. Acts of heroism, and the millions of daily interactions between police and citizens that are benign and proper, are being dismissed by the news media, and we are being shown the same half dozen awful videos repeatedly, to the point where some believe what we are seeing is happening constantly. 

During the sixties, we saw news video of acts of police brutality during anti-war demonstrations, and the public perception in progressive circles was that cops were part of a larger machine set into play to oppress people. We are seeing a similar reaction to policing today. Because of the ever-growing divide between the haves and have-nots, many perceive police as protecting the interests of the rich. I believe some of these perceptions are faulty. As a child I attended every anti-war demonstration in San Francisco, and honestly, we never saw police misbehaving. I’m not saying those events did not occur, I am saying most protestors were unmolested by police during protests. 

As to the perception that we exist to protect the rich, for the most part, police spend our workdays in housing projects protecting the poor from predators within their own community. Yes, police misconduct happens, but it is not an hourly, or even daily, occurrence. Of course, in an ideal world, police would always make the right choices, but, as long as police officers are human, that is unlikely to ever happen. In some jobs if an employee screws up, a customer gets a Latte, instead of a Mocha. When cops screw up, people get hurt, so of course, we must hold police to a much higher standard of performance.

Q - Writing a memoir as intensely personal as Good Cop, Bad Daughter could have negative repercussions on your professional relationships. Although you are now retired from the San Francisco Police Department, was the reaction from your colleagues what you expected?

A - I had prepared myself for a backlash, thinking my co-workers would dislike my portrayal of some scenes of police misconduct, but my colleagues have been very supportive. My former classmates and patrol partners have no complaints about how they were portrayed, and those characters who are portrayed as villainous probably will never read the book, or will not recognize themselves if they do.

I dedicated this book to all my co-workers, but mostly to the women officers who paved the way before me. The female graduates of the first few academy classes that admitted women experienced much more discrimination than those of us who came a little later. Those women opened the doors for us, and put up with a lot so that we could have the same opportunities men have in law enforcement careers. 
Q - You had a parent with mental illness and it both inspired you to work in law enforcement and informed you about how to handle the mentally ill when you encountered them in your professional capacity. Do you have any professional advice for law enforcement officers who encounter emotionally disturbed persons ("EDPs") on the job?

A - The tools I learned from managing my mother’s illness will be familiar and obvious to anyone who has grown up with a difficult parent, whether mentally ill, or a substance abuser. I learned to speak very slowly and calmly, and that any sort of stimulation can set off panic in a disturbed individual. 
Realistically, if a mentally ill person is attacking a cop, or a citizen with a weapon, the police are going to react in the way we have been trained, using force as necessary. But during times when we can bring a sense of calm to a scene, we can sometimes diffuse volatile situations.
One of the biggest problems I see in our culture is the lack of facilities to treat the mentally ill. There are few hospital beds, and the need is always much greater than the availability. In an ideal world, help would be readily available to anyone who needs it, on demand. Many lives would be saved if we invested in our mental health infrastructure.

Q - You were raised by multiple caregivers during your childhood, some of them caring, and some, like your mother, who could be neglectful - leaving you with a lot of freedom as a child, which also put you in some dangerous situations. How did your upbringing and police work influence how much freedom you give your own children as a parent?

A - As a child, I was, as they say, “free-range,” which sounds like I provided eggs for my family, though I seldom did. From about age 7, on, my best friend and I roamed the streets of San Francisco freely, creating our own adventures. I now feel incredibly lucky to have had that experience. Being free-range gave me a sense of confidence and agency that I doubt I would have had otherwise. By the time I became a cop, I had already patrolled the streets for years with my best friend.
As a parent, I am part of the generation that believed our children would be immediately kidnapped if we took our eyes off them for a moment. Though I am not a helicopter parent, my children never had the same sort of freedom I had. Every time I considered a new liberty for them, I would ask myself, “Would a reasonable person let their child do this? Ride a bike alone? Stay at the mall with a friend?”
Since my primary care taker during my own childhood was not “reasonable,” I imitated the parenting skills of other parents in my community who seemed to know what they were doing. In the end, though we probably could have given our children more freedom, they are great people, and self-sufficient, which is the goal of good parenting. A good parent should work himself out of a job.

Q - What are you working on now? Have you thought of using your knowledge of police procedures to help other authors in editing their crime novels?
A - Reading and editing other people’s work is one of my favorite things to do. For most writers, editing other people’s work is a welcome break from doing our own writing. I just finished editing, and consulting, for a mystery writer, whose work was a great read. If there are any crime or police procedural writers out there who need an editor, I welcome you. 
In the fall, I have an essay coming out in an anthology put together by Amy Ferris, and Seal Press, “Shades of Blue.” My chapter is called, “Thorazine.” This book is for anyone who has dealt with depression, suicide, or suicidal ideation. Amy was inspired to collect these stories after we lost Robin Williams to suicide. I know this book will encourage others to seek help.

Thank you so much for having me as a guest on your blog. I really enjoyed chatting with you.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A High School Student Interviews Dr. Judy Melinek

What is your definition of a forensic pathologist?
A forensic pathologist is a doctor who is trained to perform autopsies to figure out the cause of death and is also trained in death investigations to figure out the manner of death. The cause of death is the disease or injury that starts the lethal sequence of events without sufficient intervening causes. The manner of death is a system that classifies the cause of death as either natural, accident, suicide, homicide or undetermined. Forensic pathologists work for county or state medical examiners or coroners and under the law do autopsies in cases of sudden, unnatural or violent deaths.

  1. What specific college courses did you take to prepare you to go into medical school?
  2. I was a biology major so I mostly took the courses I need to meet my major and pre-med requirements (luckily there was sufficient overlap to allow me to take some electives in topics I would never study again, like the history of Iran and an overview of the psychology in the bible). I would recommend that students take courses in biostatistics to help them understand the medical literature better and also take courses in business management and marketing. These are not taught in medical school but will help with your career in the long run.
  1. What important things should I expect going into the field of forensic pathology?
  2. You should expect that even though the field appears exciting on television (and it is) the excitement is with the daily discovery of things you don't know, not with helping the police catch the "bad guys." A lot of our job involves grief counseling and explaining how people have died to their loved ones. This can be emotionally exhausting, but also rewarding.
  1. Is a law degree required to become a forensic pathologist?
  2. No, but you do learn quite a bit about the laws that pertain to criminal and civil litigation on-the-job. I actually teach as an invited speaker at several law schools because I know a lot about the laws that pertain to what I do and how to best work with medical experts.
  1. Did you study in any kind of forensic pathology specialties (toxicology, serology, odontology, anthropology, taphonomy)?
  2. Yes. In my memoir, "Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner" I detail my training at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. There, I did rotations at the toxicology lab and also worked alongside the anthropologist. I didn't learn as much as I would need to replace them - that would require years of education and training - but I learned enough about what they do that I would understand when I need to consult them.
  1. What high school courses do you think would help prepare me to be a forensic pathologist?
  2. The most important things in high school is to take the courses that challenge you but that still allow you to get an "A." Getting into college is a numbers game and you want the highest grades possible to get into the college of your choice and be able to afford to go with academic scholarships. If you love biology, take it, but don't take AP bio and get a C - work hard for that A because college interview decisions are based on your GPA and SAT or ACT scores.
  1. What skills would you recommend I should start working on now as a high school student?
  2. Reading and critical thinking skills are essential. So are having the self-motivation for independent study. Start by reading journal articles in Scientific American, Popular Science or Forensics Magazine. Look up terms you don't understand on line and spend some time on Khan Academy teaching yourself something new. These skills will help you in any field, not just forensics.
  1. How has being a forensic pathologist rewarded you?
  2. In so many ways! It is both intellectually and emotionally rewarding.  Working for a coroner every day that I go in to work I know that anywhere from two to half a dozen families have lost their loved ones in the past 24 hours and are waiting for an answer. Sometimes I can give them an answer right away, like if I find a heart attack or aneurysm; but in most cases I have to wait until the lab results come back including toxicology and histology. During that time I can develop a relationship with those family members, gets more information about the decedent's medical history and spend time researching what I found, especially if it is a rare disease. As a medical specialist that works for myself or for a government entity, I also don't ave to deal as much with the difficulties my colleagues in primary care face with getting paid by insurance companies. I am very satisfied with my choice and I encourage more students to pursue forensic pathology as a career path.