Peacekeepers in a pandemic

by Isabella Maldonado

It’s not easy being a cop. Even in the best of times, you get beaten on, spit on, vomited on, urinated on, and bled on. Some law enforcement officers get shot, stabbed, or hit by a car. Everyone who puts on a badge knows this. We go in with our eyes wide open.

What we don’t expect, however, until we see it firsthand, is the insidious danger of widespread public panic. My first experience with this was as a rookie patrol officer on the east coast during hurricane season. With a nasty storm in the forecast, everyone rushed to the store to buy toilet paper, water, paper towels, milk, diapers, and bread. Having weathered hurricanes, tornadoes, and blizzards growing up, I figured everyone would just go out to get what they needed and return home.

Not so much.

Calls for police began to crackle over the radio in our squad cars. We were dispatched to assaults in the aisles inside grocery stores and fender benders in the parking lots outside as two cars tried to pull into the last open space. There were fisticuffs over the last portable generator for sale at Home Depot (hurricanes always seemed to down power lines, which could mean days without electricity). Most memorable for me was when a grocery store manager announced there was no more toilet paper. I suppose the people who went to jail after the mini riot that ensued didn’t have to worry about a lack of Charmin for a while.

I also remember what it was like to respond to calls for service during outbreaks of various viruses, toxin scares (remember anthrax, anyone?), and other airborne pathogens. We did not have protective equipment beyond latex gloves when we waded into some dicey situations. The confounding problem was that we had no idea who was infectious or what items were contaminated at the scene. The public we had sworn to protect could be the very ones infecting us. And occasionally, one of them did it on purpose.

I’ll never forget the man I arrested for burglary who loudly proclaimed he was HIV positive, then bit off a chunk of flesh from inside his mouth and spat it at my face. Reflexes kicked in, and I managed to swing my ticket book holder up between us as a shield. I heard a soft splat against the metal before the clump oozed to the floor. I had successfully blocked his attempt, and added another charge against him, but no matter how hard I scrubbed or how much bleach I used, I could never get the bloodstain out. Later, when I became an instructor at the police academy, I displayed the ticket book holder for the recruits when we talked about biohazards on the job (I was assured by health officials that it had been sanitized and only the discoloration remained).

As a commander, I underwent critical incident management training. Every nerve tensed as I heard the WMD experts from other agencies refer to us as “blue canaries.” This meant that the police would be the first in at any disturbance, often without any hint that a pathogen could be involved. If it was something highly toxic, responding police would collapse, providing the first clue that something dangerous was in the air. Everyone else could then take appropriate precautions and establish a perimeter based on where the police had succumbed. I remember cursing under my breath and hearing my fellow commanders doing the same. We lobbied for better protective equipment, and succeeded in getting it for our officers, but that doesn’t account for the majority of unseen hazards we come across. There are the things that take days to show symptoms. Things we might take home to our families.

So how do we support our first responders? First, avoid creating mayhem and show extra patience with others. We are all in this together. Second, don’t let rumors guide you. What is it about impending emergencies that cause people to panic-hoard? I was talking with one of my neighbors yesterday (we stayed six feet apart) and he told me that he didn’t want to be a crazy hoarder, but because everyone else was, he felt pressured into stockpiling as well.

He shrugged. “If I don’t grab it now, there won’t be any when I run out, right?”

He had put his sanitized finger directly on the problem. As a society, we have something of a herd mentality. When we see everyone else gathering supplies, we figure we’d better do the same. Before long, necessities have dwindled on the shelves, creating an increased sense of urgency. Then even the most levelheaded among us are forced to scramble for the remaining scraps. We wait in line for hours, only to get inside to see empty shelves. Everyone’s nerves are frayed, and before you know it, formerly reasonable people are throwing punches over the last gallon of milk.

My view: Caution is prudent. Fear is the beginning of a dark path. Panic is the enemy.

The Small Stuff Is Now The Big Stuff

by Roger Johns

I normally shy away from blogging about current events, but today, I’m making an exception. All our lives, we’ve hear the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff” and there are lots of good, solid, practical reasons for heeding this bit of conventional wisdom:

  • You can’t control everything, so don’t drive yourself to the brink trying to
  • Focus on the stuff that matters the most (which requires you to . . .)
  • Learn to understand the relative importance of the situations you’re facing

Unfortunately, it now seems all of us are very much sweating some really, really small stuff. Over the last few weeks, I’ve watched with growing horror and dismay as the negative effects of the corona virus outbreak have rippled across the planet.

It is an exceptionally small creature, yet its influence is enormous. One virus particle is about 100 nanometers across. For comparison, 10,000 of them, lined up side-by-side would cover a distance about the width of a grain of sand. Yet this infinitesimally small thing has disrupted financial markets, travel, social structures and norms, families, whole countries.

The term ‘social distancing’ has entered my consciousness for the first time (although I’m sure the expression has been around for a while) to describe all the ways we’re inserting distance between ourselves and others, at both the individual and group level, as we attempt to halt the spread of this virus. Reports of cruise ships being turned away from harbors are heartbreaking. The ships have essentially become floating quarantines with thousands of passengers and crew unable to leave – people who boarded for the purpose of finding some relaxation and down-time, never realizing they’d be held in isolation and unable to disembark when the cruise was over.

It’s hard to image how disruptive this is to families and livelihoods. And then, there are shortages of masks and gloves and hand sanitizer and the predictable price-gouging of these preventive items by some. We hear/read about the race to produce a vaccine, but vaccine development takes time, and meanwhile, this very small pathogen continues to take its toll.

And while the economic effects are important and will continue to unfold into the foreseeable future, it’s the human toll that is so troubling to me: missed funerals, the inability to be with loved ones in medical or emotional need, already-strained relationships that are under additional pressure, financially-stressed families whose prospects dim as the illness continues its relentless march, life-plans that must be rethought as educational timelines are disrupted or jobs are lost or put in jeopardy. My heart goes out to all who are suffering so much from this.

We live in divisive times, for sure, so this seems like an excellent opportunity to exercise our empathy and understanding and patience muscles. As the effects of this phenomenon play out over the coming months (and maybe years) we’ll find ourselves confronting situations that didn’t work out because the person on the other end has experienced some direct, disrupting effect of the virus. Let’s all do our best to keep this in mind, as we deal with the damage wrought by this incredibly disruptive, incredibly tiny entity. It’s late in the year for New Year’s resolutions, but there’s no law that says resolution-making is an activity confined to the first few weeks of a new year.

Roger Johns is the award-winning author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur Books.

Essentials and Beyond: Police Tools of the Trade

By Micki Browning

Just as 007 has Q, every police department has its gadget gurus—albeit without the secret lair. Even officers not prone to spontaneous spending often find themselves afflicted with GAS—gear acquisition syndrome. If Gall’s features it in its equipment catalog, they have to buy it.

Depending on the size of the agency, police departments usually provide the essential equipment officers need. Rather than keep an inventory of pants and shirts, many departments issue a uniform allowance paid once or twice a year—which, in my case, conveniently coincided with the December holidays. But even with issued equipment and a uniform allowance, it’s not enough. Officers are willing to spend boatloads of cash to obtain the latest, greatest (fill in the blank) to enhance their safety, comfort or cool quotient.

Case(s) in point:

Flashlights. The first flashlight issued to me could have been used by Streamlight Stinger FlashlightNancy Drew. Over the years I’ve accumulated Maglites, Streamlights, full size, pocket size, rechargeable, battery powered, lights for my guns, and even a small light that attached under the flap of my uniform pocket that I could focus on my notepad. Let’s face it. Cops hate being left in the dark.

Guns. This being a blog and not a dissertation, I’m skipping this. Suffice it to say, guns are a cop’s ultimate gadget. As such, just about every cop has at least one personal handgun, most have a collection. Some could arm a small nation.

Pens. We buy them by the bagful and give them out like candy at Halloween. Some of the people we ask for signatures have cooties that even Lysol runs from. “Keep the pen. Consider it our gift to you.”

Handcuffs. The Peerless Handcuff Company is the go-to company for cuffs. Their swing-through arm revolutionized restraints and law enforcement has been using their products for a hundred years. Every officer is issued a set of handcuffs, but sometimes, crooks come in Peerless Handcuffsmatching sets. Thus, it is the rare (and dare I say foolhardy) officer who only carries a single pair. For variety, Peerless has hinged cuffs, chained cuffs, leg restraints, waist restraints, oversized, and for the fashion conscious, colors. Yes, you too can own pink handcuffs. No, you shouldn’t.

Sunglasses. The ultimate in cool. I hate to break it to the aviator fans among you, but since 1984, there’s only been one choice. Oakleys. To this day, they are the only sunglasses I own.

Body armor air conditioning. I have to confess, I retired from law enforcement before this was a thing. But wearing a ballistic vest on a hot day sucks. No way around it. Imagine the layers; a wool uniform shirt on the outside, a ballistic vest, and then a sweat-soaked t-shirt next to your skin. Bonus if you’re a woman—add another layer for the bra. Now picture yourself in Albuquerque, Phoenix, or in a little old lady’s home where the thermostat is set to a balmy 97 degrees. CoolCop Makes you want to go right on out and sign up, no?  The patrol car becomes your sanctuary. Crank the A/C and feel the heat ripple off your body as the cool air—oh, wait. Nope. Too many layers. No worry, CoolCop to the rescue!  This device funnels air from the air conditioning vent to an attachment that hooks on the front of an officer’s uniform. Reminiscent of being hooked up to a vacuum hose, it looks geekier than all get-out, but officers swear by it. Confidentially, of course.

The list of items goes on and on. And no matter how many times training officers tell their rookies to wait until they’re off probation before they start hoarding shiny items like a crow on coke, it rarely deters them. After all, it’s easy to justify spending money to enhance our safety and comfort. Plus, it’s essential to look cool.

Judging for the Edgars Best Novel Award

By Brian Thiem

A year ago, author pal Susan Breen told me she had been asked by Mystery Writers of America to chair the Edgars Best Novel selection committee and asked me to be one of the seven committee members.


Although I’m a newbie in the mystery writing world, I’ve been familiar with the Edgars Awards for some time. The Edgars are the most prestigious awards for mystery authors. When the nominations come out every year, I head to the library and local bookstore to grab copies of the books that Mystery Writers of America has determined to be the best. And like most mystery authors, I dream that one of my books might someday make the list.

Being asked to be part of the process was a true honor, so, not fully comprehending the enormity of the task, I agreed.

The books started trickling in. Brand new hardcover novels shipped directly from the publishers. Books written by my favorite authors. Authors I’d never previously read but always wanted to. Traditional mysteries, thrillers, procedurals. All mine to keep. It was like Christmas every day.Edgar Books 4

I started reading.

Then more books arrived. I’d get home in the evening and find several boxes of books on the porch. I’d watch the UPS guy and postal carrier plodding up my driveway carrying heavy boxes, obviously hating my decision to join the committee. In no time at all, my home office had piles of books on the coffee table and more on the floor. Soon, stacks twenty-books high covered an entire wall. I emptied half the shelves on my four bookcases to make space. But that wasn’t enough.

Susan had warned us the previous year’s Best Novel committee received more than 500 books, and we needed to find our own system to plow through the books and come up with our committee’s five nominees. It became obvious that even if I did nothing but eat, sleep, and read for the next year, I couldn’t possibly read 500 books beginning to end.

I remembered the semester in my MFA program when I interned with literary agent extraordinaire Paula Munier and was assigned her electronic “slush pile” sent by authors who dreamed of landing an agent. I quickly learned to read for “rejection.” As calloused as it sounds, I was searching for a great book by a great writer, and anything less, I had to reject.

I began doing the same with the Best Novel submissions. But it was tough. All the books came from traditional publishers who had qualified for MWA’s approved publishers list. The authors had already made the cut by attracting an agent. Their agents thought their books were great enough to pitch to publishers. The publishing houses thought the books were great enough to send out to the world and be profitable, even after the advances they paid out and the costs of editing, publishing, and marketing. All the books I received were worthy.

Many evenings, I sat in my office and stared at the twenty or more books sitting on my coffee table. Sometimes, I would read the first few pages, acknowledge it was a good book but not a winner, and put it aside. I’d read three chapters of others and think, “maybe,” setting it aside to read more. And some I read to the end over the next few days. Some of those made my list. I began whittling down the pile. Then the dreaded UPS guy came again.Edgar Books 1

The committee was comprised of avid readers and successful authors: Gray Basnight, Susan Breen, Tracy Clark, Tracee de Hahn, Mary Feliz, and Jeff Soloway. Our backgrounds and writing subgenres were different. We had different opinions about what made a “best” novel. Over the year, we traded hundreds of emails, discussing what we liked and why. We were often passionate in our opinions. But our diversity in background, voices, and beliefs turned out to be our strength.

I had only met a few of the committee members in person before we were selected, but by the end of the year, I felt I had six close friends. They’d share a book they loved, and I sometimes had to pull it from my “no” pile and give it another look. I’d tell them why I like a particular book. We’d sometimes argue over—I mean discuss—the merits of different books, but it never got personal, and I learned more about writing from this group than I thought possible.

We’re all sworn to secrecy about the inner workings of our committee and how we came up with the winners, but I will say, there’s no magic formula to what makes the best novel (or if there is, it still eludes me). If there was, every author could write the next bestseller.

Once we selected our nominees and winner, we all felt like we deserved a celebration. Too bad we lived in different parts of the country. I began boxing up my books. Some of the 540 books I had received I already gave away to friends. About 60 books—those that were not winners, but books I loved them enough to want to finish—remained on my shelves. I delivered the rest to the local library. The branch manager was thrilled. SomeEdgar Books 3 would go into their circulation, others would go to other branch libraries in the county system, and some would be sold by the Friends of the Library to raise money for library programs.

It was an honor to be part of this process. I’m in awe of the talented authors who wrote hundreds of amazing mystery, thriller, and crime novels in 2019. I offer a huge congratulations to the nominees. I’m equally in awe of my fellow committee members. You guys are awesome.

The winner of Best Novel and the other categories will be announced at the Edgars Banquet in New York on April 30.


The Great Divide

Ever stop to think about what it is that divides us? I’ve been thinking about this for some time now. Trying to decide if I had anything worth saying on the topic, or even if I could put my thoughts into words in such a way that I didn’t inadvertently widen the chasm.

As a police officer I’ve seen more than my share of hate and violence. Watched people do and say horrific things to each other. Witnessed families torn apart by abuse, both the domestic and substance variety. Sometimes both.

I’ve seen the ugliness of death and the ache of despair. I watched people publicly champion a cause and then turn a blind eye to those in need. It’s the human condition. None of us are immune from its hypocrisy.

Back in 2012, after nearly three decades as a cop, I made the decision to get out. Being a cop and witnessing the worst humanity had to offer day in and day out took a toll, as it does on every first responder. Quite honestly I was tired. Tired of other people and the way they treated each other. Tired of trying to make a positive difference in their lives, and never quite feeling that I had.

Hanging up my gun and badge was cathartic, and it worked for a while. My focus changed, along with my experiences. It was nice to spend time with people who weren’t drunk, or bloodied, or crazed. No longer was there a need for me to act as referee while adults, acting as children, attempted to inflict physical harm on one another over differences of opinion.

Lately however I feel as if I’ve traveled back in time. I’ve gotten repeated glimpses into the ugliness of human nature. Social media has become a place to strike out at others who disagree with our points of view, on literally every single topic. If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. You’re either with us or against us. Sound familiar?

I’ve heard others express the same feelings of lament over these interactions, then go about their business as if they played no part in it. People I look up to and consider friends have written and said things to and about others that I would never think about writing or saying.

I submit to you that we all play a part in it. The way we treat others, the way we respond. Has the need to be right, at all costs, become more important than the need for compassion? Is it possible that the very people we are condemning have had vastly different life experiences from our own? Perhaps we could actually learn from one another instead of shutting each other out, blocking, or unfriending. I shake my head each time I see that word used. When I was growing up we never had need of such a word as unfriending. Oh, you could be “on the outs” with someone, but that was really only a temporary status. You could be pissed at someone but still be their friend. Maybe it’s because there was more to earning friendship than clicking accept in an electronic box.

Have we become so cold-hearted and distant as a society that we can no longer be bothered to take the time to make real and lasting friendships?

I’ve watched fellow writers struggle with a bad review or writer’s block, and I’ve felt for them. We all know how difficult it is to invest so much of ourselves and our feelings into the books we write. But then I’ve looked on in amazement as these same people piled on when another writer had some “undeserved success”, or garnered some “undeserved accolade”, or crossed some imagined “territorial boundary”. I don’t pretend to know what any of my fellow writers have been through in their lives, but I know that we all have stories in need of telling. And I will defend the right to tell those stories. 

Perhaps the way in which we, as a society, can begin to heal is through reflection. Before we post another provocative tweet, or share some inflammatory meme, or say something we will later regret, maybe we should pause and ask ourselves is this really necessary? Would I say this if the person was standing right in front of me? Am I part of the problem?

Are you like me? Are you tired of what the world has become? Would you like to have a more positive outlook on life? Ask yourself what you can do, or not do, today that will brighten someone else’s day. Perhaps we would all do well to heed Otis’s advice and try a little tenderness. Let’s start with that.

An Unwashed Stain

               I had intended, this month, to use my small space to discuss a topic outside of famous trials from history. I had planned an essay which explored the craft of writing. Then, I saw that I was scheduled to drop this blog on Super Bowl Sunday. Was a discussion of craft really called for, I wondered, as the nation settled itself into sofas and recliners for hours of beer ads and a costumed J-Lo, with football occasionally interspersed? I decided not. I’ve set that topic aside for another month.

            In January 2000, the St. Louis Rams defeated the Tennessee Titans before a Super Bowl crowd in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. Linebacker Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson one yard short of the End Zone as time expired. The fans in Atlanta and those watching on television had witnessed one of the greatest Super Bowl games ever played. Shortly afterwards, however, the conversation turned not to the game but to allegations of murder involving one of the NFL’s premier players, linebacker Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens.

            In the late 90’s, the Buckhead neighborhood had become the place to party in Atlanta. The 1996 Olympics enhanced the city’s reputation. A growing Hip-Hop culture gave the city street-cred. The city relaxed rules for clubs in order to encourage the expansion of nightlife. 100 clubs were estimated to operate within a three block stretch of Buckhead. One of the clubs in January 2000 was the Cobalt Lounge.

            Ray Lewis and a group of friends, including Reginald Oakley and Joseph Sweeting, attended a Super Bowl party there following the game. Upon leaving Cobalt around 4:00 AM, they got into an argument with another group. Fueled by rage and alcohol, a fight ensued. Oakley and Sweeting brawled against other men, including Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar. Lewis, dressed in a cream-colored suit and Stetson, stayed by his rented limo.

            The fight resulted in the stabbing and death of Baker and Lollar. Lewis’ limo carried Oakley and Sweeting among others away from the crime scene. Lewis told the limo’s occupants to keep quiet about what had taken place.  

            Subsequently, Oakley, Sweeting and Lewis were all arrested. The police located blood inside the limo. Authorities never recovered the white suit Lewis wore that night. Prosecutors originally charged Lewis with two counts of murder. He struck a deal, mid-trial, to plead to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony against Oakley and Sweeting. Although he testified that the other two men bought knives in an Atlanta sporting goods store the previous day, he never directly linked them to the murder.

            Trials seek to take a dynamic event and to explain it sequentially. Alcohol and emotion interfere with these retellings. The prosecution’s case, hampered by inconsistencies, could not be salvaged by flipping the celebrity co-defendant. The jury, finding self-defense, acquitted Oakley and Sweeting of murder after three hours of deliberation. Ray Lewis, to this point is the only person convicted of anything in connection with the twin killings.

            Questions persist about how much Lewis knew concerning what transpired in the hours surrounding the deaths, and whether he withheld information which might have led to justice. He has always maintained that he had no part in the crimes. The blood in the limo, the missing suit, and the demands for silence may suggest something different.

            “I’m not trying to end my career like this,” Lewis said, according to another passenger of the limo. He didn’t. Lewis received one year of probation. The NFL fined him $250,000. Lewis played 13 more seasons and was renowned for his defensive leadership. In his NFL Hall of Fame induction speech he referred to 1999-2001 as “some of the darkest moments of his life” and thanked the Ravens coaches and owner for helping him through it.

            About 20 miles north of the NFL Hall of Fame are the graves for Baker and Lollar.

            Last week’s passing of Kobe Bryant has forced us again to consider how fans reconcile the complicated legacy of famous athletes. Like the complex characters of good literature, we struggle to balance athletic greatness, community service and the unwashable stain of a moment. 

            Ray Lewis’ career will always be marked with the phrase, “yes, but”.

Mark Thielman

The Novel Coronavirus – What’s It All About?

Hello all!

Ben Keller here with my latest contribution to the blog. Normally we here try to write about how our past career experiences inform our writing of authentic crime fiction. But considering the recent concerns around the Novel Coronavirus, and my role as an international security consultant, I thought I would share some of the latest developments and some grounded, basic advice and analysis. Please note that I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV. Please consult your own healthcare provider with any medical concerns.

So what’s the deal? Near the end of December 2019, the government in Wuhan in China announced a cluster of cases of pneumonia. The cluster seemed to be associated with the South China Seafood Wholesale Market, but no cause had yet been identified.

On January 8 of this year, a new virus was discovered, named the “2019-novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV).” Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, some of which can infect people. Some only cause the common cold, others can have more serious, even fatal, impact. Previous examples were the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). The “novel” in this virus’ name simply means that it is a newly identified virus.

In this case, the majority of the confirmed cases are centered around Wuhan, but other cases have been exported to other countries. The initial transmission appears to have been from animal to human, but human-to-human transmission has been confirmed.
As of the time of this writing on January 27, here are the numbers:
Global total: 2797 cases
Mainland China: 2744 cases, 80 deaths
Beyond Mainland China: 53 cases

Other countries with confirmed cases: Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, United States, Vietnam

So who’s at risk? Human-to-human transmission has been confirmed, but it is not yet known how easily or sustainably it spreads. This is a rapidly developing situation, so the extent and nature of the risk is not yet fully understood. Most people infected so far have been in or through Wuhan. Some of the initial cases reported visiting seafood/animal markets, a potential source of exposure. As with all such illnesses, those with underlying medical conditions, compromised immune systems, and the elderly would have the greatest risk if exposed.

So far there is no specific treatment, and a vaccine could take months – or years – to develop. Patients have had a wide range of response, from mild illness to death. The best measure is prevention. A few basic precautions include:
• Avoid direct contact with animals, alive or dead. Do not touch surfaces that may be contaminated with droppings.
• Keep your distance from people who are obviously sick.
• Maintain good personal hygiene. Wash your hands frequently and employ hand sanitizer periodically. Avoid touching your face.
• Ensure food is thoroughly cooked.
• Don’t travel if you’re sick.

Speaking of travel, international travelers should expect delays. Several world airports have implemented mandatory health screening, but these are primarily directed for flights arriving from China. Some parts of Asia have made wearing surgical masks mandatory.

What’s the outlook? The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) advised on January 22 that further global spread of this virus is “likely,” with a high probability that the outbreak will spread to other countries in Asia (as these have the greatest volume of people traveling to and from Wuhan, China.) They assess it moderately likely that the virus will spread to countries in the European Union (EU), Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessed the immediate health risk in the United States as “low” as of January 22.

I hope you’ve found this overview helpful. As I frequently tell my consultees, I don’t want people to walk around trembling in fear, but to have an accurate understanding of the risks they take. Ensure reasonable precautions, then go live your life. I wish you all good health and safe travels!

-Ben Keller