Getting the Cop Stuff Right

by Brian Thiem

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to help four writer friends get the cop stuff right in their novels. My cop friends know this stuff, but unless a crime fiction writer has carried a badge and gun for a living, they can make procedural errors that will make more knowledgeable readers cringe. Glock-23-40S-W_main-1

Most fiction writers these days (although a few are still clueless) know Glocks don’t have manual safeties and police officers carry their pistols with a round in the chamber, so there’s no dramatic racking of the slide before they go into a dangerous situation, as we often see on TV. Therefore, the questions I normally get are more nuanced and complex.

I helped two writers understand crime scene security. On major cases, such as homicides, the mayor, the victim’s mother, and reporters cannot enter the scene. In Oakland, our rule was that as soon as the life threating activities (medical care to the injured, arresting suspects, and searching and securing the scene) were complete, the only people allowed into the scene were the field supervisor (normally a patrol sergeant), homicide investigators, coroner’s deputies, and crime scene technicians.

Since every officer on the scene had to write a report, if some captain tried to pull rank to come in and “take a look,” I would just tell him that per the Report Writing Manual, he must complete a supplemental report detailing everything he did and saw while on the scene and his reasons for entering. I’d remind him he might have to testify in court because defense lawyers love to question everyone present looking for inconsistencies. In my time in Homicide, I never had any brass insist on entering a major crime scene.crime-scene-tape

I helped another writer create a realistic police detective character. Most major police departments require that all new hires start as a uniformed police officer and work their way through the ranks, except for possibly police chiefs, who are sometimes hired from outside the department. After a number of years in uniform, an officer may be promoted to detective. In some departments, detective is a duty position within the same ranks as those in uniform, such as officer or sergeant. In others, such as LAPD and NYPD, officers test for a separate detective rank. And if the detectives (or investigators, as many departments actually call them), work in crime-based units (homicide, robbery, burglary, etc.), they normally have to work their way up to Homicide.

I helped another writer understand the boundaries of an investigator’s legal jurisdiction. Investigators often have to cross jurisdictional lines to do their job. Crooks don’t stay within a particular city’s boundaries, so investigators can’t either. However, states have different laws governing the extent of a police officer’s authority. In California, for instance, a peace officer has police powers anywhere in the state. Even though I worked for Oakland PD, I could legally make an arrest in Los Angeles, although I’d be a fool to do so without the help of LAPD unless I accidentally stumbled on something and was forced to take action. Even if I was going a few blocks outside Oakland to make an arrest, I’d always notify the neighboring city first, and they’d often send their officers to assist.

Even though I had no peace officer authority outside California, I traveled to other states a number of times when investigating homicides. We’d always make contact with the jurisdiction we were visiting, either a city police department, sheriff’s office, or state police, as a matter of courtesy, but also because they knew the locale, the bad guys, and had direct access to a cavalry of blue suits if the feces hit the fan.

One investigation took me to Washington D.C., where the city’s homicide unit assigned two detectives to me and my partner to assist us as we interviewed an Oakland murder suspect they had arrested for us and helped us locate several witnesses in the seedier parts of our nation’s capital. I recall their assistance even included taking us to dinner and drinking with us at the local cop bar. Cop Bar

I worked with another writer whose police detective was getting into a romantic relationship with a crime victim. I won’t say it never happened in real life, but police officers know that’s an ethical no-no. Firstly, the investigator is in a disparate power position with a citizen victim or witness, somewhat like a teacher and a student or a therapist and a patient. Secondly, a personal relationship could taint the investigator’s objectivity and therefore, the investigation. And lastly, if the case goes to trial, the defense attorney will have a field day with the investigator in court, challenging his professionalism, objectivity, and honesty (he probably lied about the affair or at least kept it secret), which will likely damage the case beyond repair.

I’m not telling my author pals not to do it, because it makes for such great drama—the dedicated detective willing to destroy his career for the beautiful heroine or the flawed detective who breaks the rules in the name of justice and love—but understand the consequences in the real world.

I’m impressed with authors who try to get the cop stuff right in their novels, so don’t be afraid to ask if I can assist. And if you’re a writer and going to the Mystery in the Midlands conference next month, I’ll be teaching a masters class on Police Tactics for Writers.

8 thoughts on “Getting the Cop Stuff Right

  1. As a traditional mystery writer who features amateur sleuths, the information I learn about police procedure gives my stories, I hope, a touch of authenticity. Thanks for sharing this great info!

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  2. I’m working on a story in which there are more than one departments involved. The county investigates major crimes in municipalities that are small and lack resources. The small town is where the crime took place. Its department has a vested interest in staying involved in the investigation. It may even try to hinder the investigation. My question is: When there are more than one department involved, is it normal there to be a rivalry, perhaps based on personality or vested interest?

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