Mars P.D.

[Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth, via The Atlantic].

Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.

If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.

But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?

Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.

Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?

In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?

The full feature is now up over at The Atlantic.

4 thoughts on “Mars P.D.”

  1. Hi, I was curious about the demographic markers you mentioned that lead to the creation of police (meeting a certain number of strangers per day, etc.). Is it possible to link me to the sources for that information? Thanks.

    1. Hey, Dwayne—thanks for the interest. The specific idea of meeting a certain number of strangers per day was a hypothetical parameter I used for the piece (similar to a hypothetical number of settlements each future Martian resident has yet to visit), but the other milestones (such as installing street lights, etc.) are all discussed in various books and studies.

      Specifically in terms of street lights, for example, A. Roger Ekirch’s book At Day’s Close describes how street lights were installed as a kind of urban police operation (something that was also the subject of a recent book).

      In terms of the rise of the FBI, Ronald Kessler has written quite a lot about the Bureau and its origins; and, in terms of SWAT teams and police weaponry, I’ve found Radley Balko’s work very interesting (in addition to my own conversations with retired LAPD SWAT team members).

      My own book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, has a long list of policing references in the endnotes, so that might also be a useful place to turn. There are many books about the origins of detectives, for example, both from a theoretical (i.e. the nature of evidence and its interpretation) and a historical (i.e. the Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency) point of view.

      Hope that helps!

  2. There was a murder in the Antarctic that ran into jurisdictional problems. The area was claimed by New Zealand but it was a US base staffed with US nationals. The NZ authorities tried to investigate, but didn’t really get anywhere. I have no idea of why there was no US investigation.

    P.S. Isn’t this why the US has special marshals? I presume other nations have similar peace officers.

  3. How much law do we take with us? Odd that you didn’t mention Shanghai. The current legal regime planned for any Mars colony will result in a situation similar to Shanghai in the 1930’s: violation of laws will be punished according to the citizenship of the criminal. American citizens will be judged under U.S. law–somewhat problematic since federal criminal law was never supposed to be comprehensive–German citizens under German law, etc. Take a look at Norwood Allman’s *Shangai Lawyer* (pub. 1943) for a flavor of what this would be like. Or take a look at, where you can get a free copy of a proposed legal code for Mars. Thank you for pointing out that the residents of Mars will not be holding hands and all singing *kumbaya.* There will be criminals amongst them and how the world community deals with criminal issues should be addressed earlier, rather than later.

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