Policing: A Worldbuilding Exercise

In our everyday world (sometimes called “the real world”) there is a wide-ranging ongoing discussion of the function of “policing.” It’s a hot topic, a difficult one to discuss in any depth of social media because there is so much emotion (rage and fear) attached to it. There are definitely better ways to do the thing we call “policing” than we are doing it now, but it seems impossible to imagine, because there is so much rage at generations of injustice, and so much fear by the group on whose behalf that injustice was administered, and so much sheer infrastructure you have to deal with to even contemplate what a better way would look like.

With that in mind, let’s do a world-building exercise.

It can be an alternate history world, much like this one except that in the past there were significant changes that redirected social/technological development. It would be a Second World fantasy world with literally unearthly creatures and powers. It can be a colony on a world orbiting another sun; it can be set here, in the near or far future. Take a few minutes to think about it.

This is your made-up world. You don’t have to worry, now, about any of the pesky details, like how to shift funding, provide training, etc. for anything you do with the function that might be covered by what we now call “police.”

Before you start, there are two things you have to decide. Does your society presume innocence, or guilt? And what members of society is your system designed to protect?

Let’s look at some existing models.

The Lawless Model: You can create a libertarian paradise where there is absolutely NO civil force to maintain social order or prevent actions identified as crimes. In fact, they may not have the concept of crime. Strong people take what they want. Weak people might be sneaky and get stuff from strong people via trickery. (In fact, I think I just stole that from the Marquis de Sade.) That’s it, that’s your world. While this might be an interesting milieu in which to set a story, my bias is that you aren’t going to get far building a society with this approach.

There might be a Lawless Adjusted Model, where, because some people do want to build a society, a few codes get built into the essential lawlessness. For example, maybe a dueling culture develops, or a vendetta process. There is still no governmental arm; there are still no real laws, but there is something of a code of conduct for convenience’s sake.

The Capitalist Model: In this model, once again government provides no support. People hire protection if they can afford it. That’s it. Questions for you include; who do those who can’t afford private protection survive? Do they band together? Does something like what we call a “gang culture” develop among those who can’t hire highly trained security folks?

The Civil Solution Model: Every issue goes to some kind of a civil court, where a judge or panel of judges rules and imposes a solution. This feels like it could go hand in hand with the Capitalist Model. My bias here is that this system provides zero protection against bad acts, although it may redress some wrongs.

The Theocratic Model: Perhaps your government is controlled by a religious group, and they manage social order via people within the church or temple. What would that look like? Since most religions contain, or claim to contain, a spiritual component, theocratic cops would have that dimension in their remit. How does that play out in your world? Here, it’s possible that “presumed guilty/presumed innocent” question takes on a lot of importance.

The Democratic Government Model: Whether your government is directly democratic or a representative democracy, perhaps its citizens have voted to pay people to manage social order and provide general public safety and protection. This is what we say we have in our everyday USA. In theory, this force would be responsible—and responsive—to the people it is sworn to protect. What types of actions are you going to put this group in charge of? Should they be handling “civil” disputes? If not, is there a separate arm in your government for contract disputes, landlord/tenant rights issues, feuding neighbors, barking dogs and loud parties? Or do these guys handle all of it? To whom are they accountable, and what does that look like?

The Occupation Model: Maintenance of the social order is provided to/imposed on the civilian populace of a jurisdiction whose government lost a war by the victor’s occupying military force. This doesn’t take much imagination; both history and fiction provide dozens of examples.

The Autocratic Government Model: A government who tightly holds all control has an arm responsible for maintaining social order, that reports directly to it. It is not responsive in any way to the will of the residents, since the government knows what is best for them. What would that look like in your world? What if this autocratic government was actually benign? Would that make any difference?

If you create a “social order maintenance” force, what are they in charge of? In the everyday world, we’ve lumped a lot of things under “police” that quite possibly don’t belong there.

This is your world, and money is no object. How would you slice and dice things?

I thought about the types of calls I know police get, and broke them out into categories:

Acts that Cause Bodily Harm:

  • Terrorism, arson
  • Causing the death of another person
  • Physical battery
  • Sexual Battery
  • Rape–can include drugging someone, etc.
  • Child abuse, child neglect
  • Animal abuse, animal neglect
  • Endangering/posing a threat to public safety (driving while drunk, under the influence, distracted– chainsaw juggling for the first time in a crowd, etc.)

Acts Against Physical Property:

  • Arson (again)
  • Theft, burglary (mugging would be included above.)
  • Vandalism
  • Reckless destruction of another’s property.
  • Damaging public/government property.
  • This whole list assumes your world has a concept of personal property ownership

Economic Acts:

  • Embezzling
  • Fraud
  • Insider Trading
  • Extortion/blackmail

Compliance Failures:

  • Failing to meet health/safety codes
  • Creating a public hazard.

Interpersonal Acts:

  • Neighbor disputes
  • Neighbor disputes
  • Loud Parties
  • Nuisance animal
  • Domestic disputes
  • Disorderly Conduct

Traffic Safety:

  • Speeding, running a stop sign, etc.


It’s not a researched list at all and as you are creating your social order maintenance force you may come up with more, or may collapse several of these into one another.

I’d like to imagine a world where different types of disputes go to differently trained arms of whatever my social order maintenance group is. I’d like to see Disorderly Conduct, Domestic and Neighbor Disputes, and Neglect/Abuse of children approached by a highly trained and experienced cadre of therapists and social workers. If the situation escalates into a hostage situation or assault, they would call for backup. Or maybe they drive around with backup, but they are the lead. Similarly, I’d like the see the noisy party or the barking dog handled at a much lower, civilian level. That would be one way to be build a social order maintenance function in an alternate world.

Then, of course, there would have to be a story that tested the premise of my newly created Social Order Maintenance (SOM!) folks.

We can, and do, imagine “policing” differently, all the time—we just aren’t conscious of it. Could we imagine our everyday world’s police forces differently? Of course we could, and we could enact those changes. All it would take is the political will. In the meantime, use this exercise to study your own assumptions about “policing,” who is helps, how it could be better.

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