Kindness is Needed More Than Ever

By Brian Thiem

With the COVID-19 Pandemic affecting everything in our lives, I worry more than ever about our law enforcement officers. The job was tough enough before this crisis. Crime hasn’t slowed. Add demands to enforce vague and ever-changing emergency orders in communities where half the population opposes the guidelines, and the potential for violence is brewing.

I can only imagine how difficult it is for officers trying to protect and serve sick, frightened, and stressed citizens while worried about becoming infected themselves. Cops, along with other first responders and medical professionals, are becoming sick in record numbers. They fear infecting their families.

Now is the time to support and show kindness to our first responders and medical workers. I pray the officers’ leaders—the sergeants, lieutenants, and above—step up and demonstrate the support and kindness toward the working cops that they so desperately need right now.

As I racked my brain this morning for a topic to write about in this blog, the normal subjects of crime fiction writing and such seemed unimportant. When the “stay at home” orders started coming out across our nation, I thought it was a sort of godsend for my writing—an opportunity to spend more time writing with fewer distractions. However, as most other authors have discovered, I find it is incredibly hard to tap into my creative side when the world outside is in chaos.

The divisive fringes of our nation are more divisive. Social media feels meaner than ever. I thumbed through a file of old memories that I had saved to possibly write about some day. I found the following, written four years ago for an automated email group of active and retired Oakland police officers. The author remembered a day in 2004. I edited it a bit for brevity and anonymity.

Today is my son’s 11th birthday. Over cake and ice cream I was recounting some of the highlights of his early days with him. He had some significant health issues when he was born, and on about the 5th day of his life he was forced to make a trip to UC Davis for one of those life or death type surgeries. I advised my chain of command of my circumstances and my commander released me immediately. I raced home and drove the boy to UC Davis Medical Center. Within hours of my arrival I received two phone calls. The first from my District Sergeant. He was upset because in my haste to depart I had failed to turn in my patrol “stat sheet” for the day. God forbid! Hours later the second call was from my commander. The lieutenant called to check on the status of my son and to tell me, “You take as much time as you need.” His concern for my son’s well-being was genuine. No discussion about work, only questions concerning my family and an advisement that if I needed anything to call him directly. I’m certain he’s forgotten it after all these years, but I never will. Many a young leader today would do well to mimic the leadership qualities of that Lieutenant.

I remember all too well the challenge of getting the job done when I was a police sergeant and lieutenant. Too much crime and insufficient resources to combat it. Bosses constantly on my ass to do more. Politicians screaming whenever we made a perceived mistake.

But what will we be remembered for long after we retire? Will it be for achieving a 70% clearance rate as a homicide investigator? For reducing burglaries in our sector or thwarting a home invasion spree? For instituting the latest community policing program?

No. Citizens remember the officer who treated them with kindness when they were the victim of a rape or robbery. Citizens remember the detective who not only arrested the man that murdered their son but took the time to listen to their stories about their child’s life. And police officers remember those supervisors who cared about them more than they cared about pleasing their superiors or getting the next promotion.

To the working officers during this difficult time—it’s about helping the citizens and your brother and sister officers. To police supervisors and managers—it’s about taking care of your communities and especially taking care of the working cops. And finally, to the officer who had written about that day in 2004, thank you for remembering, and for reminding me that it is our acts of kindness for which we are remembered.

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.

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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.

 

Writing Spaces and Places

By Brian Thiem: Last week I posted a photo of my writing desk on social media and received a lot of comments. I’ve also been following my many author friends during their jaunt to Dallas for Bouchercon, where their writing juices are being replenished to help them crank out the successive thousand word days when they get home. It got me thinking about our personal sacred writing spaces and places where we create the stories others love to read.

I’ve written on my back porch, in the family room, on the kitchen counter, and countless other places in my house. I’ve also written during travels from the west coast to the east and countless foreign countries. Wherever I go, I normally take my laptop so I can write.

Although all I need to write is my laptop, the screen isn’t large enough for two windows opened simultaneously, and after a few hours of work, my old body, plagued with plenty of military and cop-career injuries, is feeling it in the neck, back, and hands.

I prefer writing in my own space, where I have everything at my fingertips—reference files, notes, books. Where I can control my environment and shut out distractions when necessary. I do most of my writing at my desk, where my laptop (a 13-inch Lenovo ThinkPad) snaps into a docking station that’s hooked to two external monitors, a quality keyboard that actually makes an audible click when a key is depressed, a LaserJet printer, and mouse. The external monitor is large enough to show my working manuscript on the right and my plot outline on the left side of one screen. I often bring up my character list (because I forget character names sometimes.) I can use the other monitor for reference and research. I have room to scatter papers and notes all around me on the computer table and desk. At my desk, I sit up straight with everything in the right ergonomic position.

After an hour or two at my desk, I try to take a break, and will often find myself in my reading chair. That’s also where I normally begin a new project, brainstorming and jotting down ideas that will eventually become a plot outline. That chair is where I frequently read one of the many novels on my TBR (to be read) pile that resides on the coffee table. I’ll admit I might also lie on the sofa to read, but somehow that position seems to make my eyelids heavy.

Annie, who’s been my writing companion for seven years, her own spot in the corner of my office. She’s not much of a critic though—she’s just as content watching me write garbage as a potential bestseller.

So, fellow writers, where do you write? Tell me about your space. Attach photos.

I’ve Seen The Elephant

By Brian Thiem: In my current WIP (that’s Work in Progress for my non-writer friends—the book I’m currently working on), one of my main characters had looked forward to “seeing the elephant,” but once she does, the experience profoundly changes her.elephants

The phrase “seen the elephant” has been around for centuries. It originally meant to experience the world at a significant personal cost. Years ago, people had to travel to Africa to see an elephant, an experience filled with excitement and danger.

More recently, the military coined the phrase to describe the experience of combat, and some police departments use the phrase to define an officer’s experience in a life and death battle.

There are various degrees of seeing the elephant. Some soldiers, especially those who served in Vietnam, only consider soldiers who really saw the elephant as those engaged in close-range firefights, where they could see the faces of the enemy as they traded volleys of bullets. Others qualify anyone who has faced death at the hands of an enemy and prevailed as having seen the elephant.

When I deployed for the Iraq War, I saw how my fellow soldiers experienced their first sighting of the elephant when we were still in Kuwait and the sirens sounded as Scud missiles headed our way. I saw the faces of soldiers preparing to face the elephant when riding in a C-130 amid anti-aircraft fire on a night landing in Baghdad, and when leaving the wire in a HUMVEE to travel along the road to the Green Zone, where roadside bombs, snipers, and suicide bombers killed or wounded soldiers daily.

Some young soldiers and police officers secretly desire to see the elephant. They want to test their courage and skill by facing an opponent determined to kill them. They want to know if they’ll freeze or if they have what it takes to fight and win. However, few cops or soldiers who have faced the elephant in that manner ever want to again. They often end up with more regrets than triumphs.

In my WIP, Simone had spent years in the Army and law enforcement yet had never elephant chargingtruly faced the elephant. When she does, she is like an African hunter who had tracked a rogue bull elephant that rampaged villages and killed dozens of people. When the elephant charges her, she has a split second to summon every bit of courage and skill she possesses. Or die.

Those soldiers and police officers who have never seen the elephant might think that once they face the elephant and prevail, it will be easier the next time. But that is far from reality. Seeing the elephant changes you. Some are hardened by the experience, others suffer enormous regret at having taken a human life, some numb their emotions with alcohol or drugs, and others experience various degrees of PTSD or debilitating anxiety. And some take their own lives, as demonstrated by the higher rates of suicide among police and combat veterans.

Although my WIP is about a murder investigation and stopping bad guys from killing again, it also explores the lives of several characters, one of whom had looked forward to seeing the elephant, and how after she sees and conquers it, her life and the lives of those around her are forever changed.   

My Tribe

In three weeks time I will have been retired from law enforcement for seven years. Seven! Even as I look at the calendar I am unsure how time passed so quickly. But a quick trip into Portland and the sight of another twelve-year-old behind the wheel of a black and white confirms the awful truth. I am officially a dinosaur.

If you’ve followed some of my prior blog posts you already know how much I struggled after leaving my police life behind. The first few weeks were grand. It felt like a vacation. The phone wasn’t ringing constantly, no frantic emails to return, no emergency trips into Portland in the dead of night. It was truly great. But then, after those first few weeks had passed, I noticed something. The phone wasn’t ringing. There were no emails. Nobody needed me. It was as if I’d become obsolete overnight. Worse was the realization that I had lost that decades long connection to my police family. It might be hard for some of you reading this to imagine the feeling of no longer belonging, especially if you’re still approaching retirement from your current occupation. But trust me, it’s an unnerving experience.

I’ve known for some time that my fellow mystery/thriller writers are a welcoming and supportive group of folks. That awareness began in New England, quickly spreading to faraway places like Ireland and Australia. Fellow crime scribes abound. But it wasn’t until a week ago that I realized exactly where I belong.

I was in Tennessee attending my first Killer Nashville mystery writers’ conference. If you are a mystery writer, or hoping to be, this is a can’t miss conference. Similar in size to the New England Crime Bake, Killer Nashville draws writers from far and wide, each of whom are more than willing to share their knowledge, both of writing and the business of writing. I took part in several panels and book signings, but more importantly I got to spend time with old friends and made some new.

On Saturday night the awards banquet was held. A classy event with a fabulous band, great food, some heartfelt speeches, and the presentation of Killer Nashville’s annual awards. As the evening unfolded I had occasion to really observe the people seated at my table, former journalists, musicians, and a cop. While our our prior occupations ran the gamut, each of us shares a love of storytelling and a passion for the written word. Amid the laughter, gaiety, and playful irreverence was the unwavering support and appreciation displayed for their fellow writers. As I watched them interact with one another it occurred to me that these were exactly the same people I had surrounded myself with when I still wore a badge. People from all walks of life, with widely varying backgrounds and experiences, united by a remarkable passion for their chosen career. I realized, with certainty, that I had once again found my tribe.

Militarization of Police

By Brian Thiem
About two months ago, Sacramento Police Officer Tara O’Sullivan was shot during a domestic dispute call by a man with a high-powered rifle. Other officers immediately took cover as the gunman continued shooting, preventing them from rescuing Tara as she lay dying in the back yard of a North Sacramento house.Tara-OSullivan-Life-Mattered[1]

Within minutes, numerous officers responded, but they were unable to get to Tara without subjecting themselves to gunfire.

I can only imagine the sense of utter helplessness felt by Tara and her fellow officers as she lay dying in that backyard while rifle rounds pinged around them, her brother officers wanting to rush to her aid, but knowing that doing so meant certain death.

Those officers were armed with handguns, firearms that are effective out to about 20 yards. They wore concealable Kevlar vests that covered a fraction of their bodies and were only capable of stopping the most common handgun rounds. The rifle bullets the gunman was firing would punch right through them.

It was nearly an hour before the department was able to enter the kill zone with an armored vehicle called a Bearcat and evacuate Tara. Whether Tara was already dead at that time or died en route to the hospital hasn’t been determined or hasn’t been publicly released.Bearcat

I’ve heard and read too many politicians, activists, and media outlets decrying the so-called militarization of law enforcement—the acquisition of armored vehicles and other tools and weapons beyond what a uniformed police officer uses, and related training for major tactical situations.

Earlier this year, the Alameda County (in which Oakland, the city where I worked for 25 years, is located) voted to eliminate SWAT-type scenarios from a regional law enforcement training exercise that is attended by law enforcement agencies from around the state because it “promotes the militarization of police.”

As a tactical commander and the commander of the special operations section for several years toward the end of my police career, I oversaw hundreds of SWAT operations, and through formal Risk Analysis processes, I determined the circumstances under which specialized tactical teams and equipment was appropriate. Those decisions required balancing resources (personnel, overtime) with officer and community safety, while weighing community expectations and concerns.

Therefore, I cringe when I see news reports of heavily armed FBI SWAT teams serving a search warrant at the house of a white-collar crime suspect, or SWAT teams using armored vehicles with a battering ram for routine search warrants.

The debate over police acquiring and deploying heavy tactical equipment and weapons and engaging in training exercises focusing on terrorist attacks and active shooters should continue in our communities. However, I know some Sacramento police officers who wished they had an armored vehicle closer and more specially trained tactical officers with rifles as they were pinned down by a crazed gunman and their sister lay dying nearby.

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.